Planning enforcement frequently asked questions

If someone builds something that is different from what they got planning permission for, does that mean enforcement action will be taken automatically?

No. Although the Council does not condone building anything that is different to a proposal that has planning permission and it is extremely unwise and risky to do so, planning permissions do not represent the only form of proposal on that site that may be acceptable to the authority. Therefore, enforcement action would only be taken against a different and unauthorised building to that previously approved if it was considered to result in an unacceptable harm by the Council. (See below for what is regarded as an unacceptable harm.)

If someone breaks planning regulations shouldn’t they always be punished as a matter of principle, and made to remove or stop whatever they have done?

Not according to planning law. Other than in the case of unauthorised display of advertisements or works to listed buildings, carrying out building works or a change of use without the necessary planning permission is not a criminal act and, initially, not subject to penalties such as fines or imprisonment. Later in the process, if an enforcement notice has been served and not complied with, then court action and penalties such as fines can be imposed. However, planning enforcement is a discretionary power of a local authority that should only be used to put right any harm caused by a failure to comply with planning control. When there is no harm, or it is insignificant, enforcement action is generally not justified. A harm requiring enforcement action would normally occur when the breach in question results in an unacceptable departure from relevant planning policies that would have justified refusing planning permission if it had been the subject of a planning application.

Doesn’t planning law mean some people who break the regulations get away with it?

In the first instance, the objective of planning enforcement is generally not to punish those who break the regulations but to remedy any harm caused by unlawful actions. However, people who do not get the necessary planning permission for something they are doing risk the possibility of serious consequences from enforcement action that can be extremely costly, and failure to comply with an enforcement notice can result in court action and legal penalties. It may also be difficult or impossible to sell a property if planning permissions have not been properly obtained or followed.

Can you apply for planning permission to keep a building or continue a use that did not get the necessary planning permission?

Planning regulations do allow someone to apply for planning permission retrospectively after they have carried out unauthorised works or a use and the law requires the Council to accept and consider them. Such retrospective applications are considered on their planning merits in the same way as other applications and are not more likely to be approved or refused because they are submitted after the event. Planning permission may be granted retrospectively if the application proposal is considered to be acceptable but if this is not the case and permission is refused then it is likely that enforcement action will follow.

Do all alterations to houses require planning permission?

No. Some minor alterations, such as the insertion of a window into the wall of an existing house, may not require planning permission at all. In such cases, no enforcement action can be taken.

Is building without planning permission from the Council always unlawful and potentially subject to enforcement action?

No. Planning law allows some types and sizes of buildings, and some changes of use to take place without the need to get planning permission from the Council, and these are sometimes referred to as ‘permitted development’. For example, many domestic extensions and out-buildings to houses are permitted development, but those wishing to carry them out should have this confirmed prior to starting any building by the Council’s Development Control department. If you complain to the planning enforcement team about a building or use being carried out, officers will initially assess whether it requires planning permission. If it is a type or size that does not, perhaps because it is permitted development, then it will not be possible for the Council to consider taking enforcement action, or to access its acceptability as is done with a planning application proposal, (for example in terms of neighbourliness).

What will the Enforcement Officer do about a complaint of an alleged breach of the planning regulations, and how long will it take?

The officer will investigate the complaint and, as a first step, assess whether there has actually been a breach of planning control regulations. If there has not, then the complainant will be told and no further action will be taken. If there appears to have been a breach then a number of options for action are available ranging from informal requests to voluntarily stop or remove unauthorised work to serving formal enforcement notices requiring remedial action. These options are set out in Planning Enforcement Policy referred to above.

There is a right of appeal against planning enforcement notices and this, in addition to the work that is required to properly investigate some cases, means that the process of resolving a breach in regulations can take a long time. The Council recognises how frustrating this delay can be and will try to keep complainants informed at the key stages but it is important to understand that it is necessary for the Council to go through the procedures and requirements of the planning legal system.

Updated: 25 March 2014