What does a day in planning enforcement look like? A pertinent question for me, the network manager of NAPE, the National Association of Planning Enforcement. Since my first day in 2015 I’ve been guided and am working alongside a dedicated voluntary committee which represents all the regions and nations of the UK. Naturally, issues vary geographically. High density areas may see a high use of POCA (Proceeds of Crime Act), for example, whereas others deal with work to listed buildings or untidy lands. With officers facing different needs and challenges across the country, as captured by the NAPE bulletin, commonalities like the need to get notices right and being up to date on case law remain. Enforcement is the golden thread of the planning system: it upholds it and ensures compliance.
In order to follow through my quest in providing a relevant and interesting service for our enforcement officers and members of the network I took the opportunity to shadow a team in Scotland. Lyle, Ian and the team at Fife Council’s department of Economy, Planning and Employability gave me a practical insight into their roles and where enforcement sits within the system.
Fife is Scotland’s third largest local authority. Across the shore from Edinburgh, pick your bridge of choice and you are greeted by greenery, coastlines and pockets of large scale housing developments and urban settlements, curving up to the university town of St Andrews and lining the Firth of Forth. Dotted across the authority are listed houses and new towns such as Glenrothes as well as agricultural and mineral sites. Already, an enforcement officer can smell the challenges. Several large scale housing developments can be seen along some of Scotland’s most significant roads as well as many wind turbines as I discovered (and whose proximity to a road I verified using a laser). Going from site to site (think knightriders-of-planning) and meeting the public in this way showed a human dimension of the system, as you see the direct impact on individuals – perhaps why this function is often called the “sharp end of planning”. Whether it is a tanning studio turned restaurant, a wall that overshadows a neighbouring garden or a derelict mine, it is individuals and the natural environment that are impacted when we don’t uphold the principles agreed through the system. It is enforcement officers that ensure the integrity of the system and that the path to a solution is found. The function is corrective, not punitive, and entirely essential.
Lyle, Ian and I sit and pick out several cases on the commonly used Uniform, an enforcement workflow system that links with the Idox Planning Portal. Since the transition to digital databases, if budgets allow enforcement officers might consider using an iPad on site visits rather than paperwork. The team of four deals with up to 1100 cases a year. In 2013/2014, at any one time, the average open case load was 59 per post. Of course, any conversation with local planning authorities touches upon the resourcing issue. We know that in some parts of the UK there’s been a significant decrease in development management staff. RTPI NW has studied the resourcing question in detail and we know that in the North West of England staffing has fallen on average by 27% .RTPI Scotland scrutiny of 2014/2015 figures shows there were approximately 650 full time posts in development management out of 1280 in planning as a whole. 6% of this was enforcement staff.
How does a busy enforcement team cope with the pressures of cuts and changing systems? Well, CPD-rich events assist in prioritising, finding new ways of doing things and sharing best practice though supportive forums. Also important is getting it right from the start of the planning process, something advocated at the NAPE annual conference. Bodies and forums such as the Improvement Service, the Planning Advisory Service and NAPE work to provide support. Last year, the latter two jointly published an advice note. The ongoing Scottish Planning review is also addressing enforcement. This root-and -branch review of the Scottish planning system identified that failure to enforce (often brought about by resource constraints) is undermining public trust in the planning system. Reforms are promised, an opportunity to further strengthen the enforcement function and provide easier ways to deal with breaches of planning control in these times of constrained budgets and staff numbers. When breaches in planning law and non-compliance with conditions or approved drawings arise, the reforms ought to recognise that as part of improving development management, a well-resourced, reinforced and more effective planning enforcement regime is needed to restore some adverse perceptions of the planning system. The RTPI Scotland’s Written Evidence included the recommendation that the enforcement regime should have increased penalties for breaches.
In my opinion, it is the resilience, adaptability and knowledge of these teams which is remarkable. Being able to negotiating with difficult business owners, advising members of the public on the phone, protecting natural habitats and enforcing legislation is done in a day’s work. Therefore, it is essential that enforcement has a voice and uses it to make us all better planners.
See the website to find out what NAPE gets up to your area and to see more about NAPE.