Joined up thinking and co-operation within, and between, local authorities is integral to successfully delivering new development. It makes for effective decision making and engenders greater confidence in the planning system. Those Councils which view the “duty to co-operate” as an alien concept, have been given short shrift by the Planning Inspectorate, being sent back to the drawing board on their Local Plans where there has been a failure to engage and told to play nicely with their neighbours. It is a culture change which is welcomed and should encourage Councils to take ownership of decisions.
A recent decision of the Local Government Ombudsman is testament to the step-change needed to the internal workings of some local authorities. The case concerned a complaint by Mr X to the Ombudsman following a refusal of his application to the Council’s highway department to construct vehicle crossovers from the highway, across a grass verge, to his driveway. Mr X had already obtained planning permission for the crossovers on appeal (following the Council, as local planning authority, refusing his application.) The Council’s highway department refused Mr X’s application on exactly the same grounds as the refusal of the planning application, failing to acknowledge the planning inspector’s reasons for granting planning permission and rigidly adhering to the Council’s policy that “it will refuse” any crossovers 3 metres or more in width. The decision highlights a dogmatic determination by Council officers (in two separate departments) to ignore the merits of individual applications, even in the context of the application of the policy by an independent third party which resulted in planning permission being issued.
The Ombudsman investigator rightly concluded that there had been maladministration in how the Council had dealt with Mr X’s application. However, the more interesting part of the decision is the veiled criticism of the failure of the planning and highway departments to coordinate with each other in making the decision and, more importantly, make a decision which was inconsistent with the decision to grant planning permission. The principle is found in the choice quote from R v Warwickshire County Council Ex parte Powergen Plc:
“Is it reasonable for a highway authority, whose road safety objections have been fully heard and rejected on appeal, then quite inconsistently with the Inspector’s own factual judgement on this issue, nevertheless maintain its own original view? To my mind there can be but one answer to that question: a categoric no.”
Let’s hope this decision, and others like it, means those few local authorities who are resistant to co-operation in any form, take warning that the “computer says no” attitude is outdated and has no place in the modern planning era.