The government must strengthen the powers of local authorities against rogue developers
Giving people a greater say over developments locally via “street votes” could ensure that we build suitable developments in the right places with the necessary infrastructure. But that’s only one side of the possible planning reform coin; we must also close the loopholes exploited by rogue developers that bypass planning rules and deny residents a say entirely.
If the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will reconnect people with the planning system to encourage housebuilding, it also needs to tackle unauthorised developments that infuriate residents and tie local authorities in legal knots.
In the last parliamentary session, the Ten-Minute Rule Bill I proposed would have made this change by making unauthorised developments a criminal offence. My Bill proposed a new legal classification of ‘egregious breaches’ – deliberate or repeated attempts to bypass the rules, especially in protected areas such as green belt land. It would have prevented retrospective applications for such breaches from being lodged, making it far harder for rogue developers to attempt to cheat the planning system.
I believe these changes are necessary because, under current rules, developing without prior permission from the local authority is generally not a criminal offence. Planning is primarily a civil matter in law, allowing a degree of flexibility, including national permitted development rights, which enable specific works to occur without needing prior permission. However, this has also created loopholes that rogue developers are keen to exploit.
Their plan is simple but effective: build first, ask later. Racing local authorities’ slow legal routes to stop unauthorised development, they hope to complete as much as possible before enforcement action kicks in. But once they’ve cleared the land, built structures and installed infrastructure, it would take exorbitant sums to dismantle and revert the land to its original condition —game over for the local authority.
While local authorities can issue a restorative order, that doesn’t mean rogue developers will listen. I’ve heard of instances where bitter disputes have raged for years to restore land, only for little to happen. At worst, I’ve heard of some that continue to be fought seemingly without end for over a decade. In my constituency of Orpington, the latest scheduled court hearing to stop one particular unauthorised development at Wheatsheaf Hill has been delayed repeatedly. The process has taken well over a year, and there is no end in sight.
The most arrogant and exploitative example I have learned of was in 2018 when rogue developers brought caravans, a digger and lorries carrying materials onto a site in Essex in a pre-planned and co-ordinated attempt. They began work over a bank holiday weekend, knowing that they had a window of opportunity before the local authority could react.
In effect, actions such as this brazenly taunt the local authorities into a direct challenge. Given the enormous amount of staff time and taxpayers’ cash it takes to take on unauthorised developers and win, many local authorities loathe pursuing matters to the often bitter and unsatisfactory end.
Shamefully, rogue developers can lodge a retrospective application that local authorities have to treat as any other application under current rules. Given the practical difficulties of returning a site to its pre-development condition, retrospective applications very often succeed and even where they don’t, the place often remains scarred. So despite the rules being flouted, local authorities can up end granting permission for something no one following the process would have been allowed to do in the first place.
It is an insult to law-abiding residents and developers who play by the rules. It’s also why many communities, especially in rural areas, have lost faith in the planning system and are sceptical of new projects. With courts issuing 2,996 enforcement and 3,502 planning contravention notices and granting 49 enforcement injunctions, it’s no small issue and a national problem that ministers must address.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is perhaps one possible avenue to make unauthorised developments a criminal offence. This legislation aims to empower local leaders and give residents more involvement in local development. Closing the loopholes in our planning system would help free up local authorities’ planning departments to implement “street votes” and restore people’s faith in the rules, protect our green belt, and stop communities from being blighted by unauthorised developments.
Many parliamentarians would like to see action in this area. My constituency neighbour Laura Trott has been an excellent advocate for her rural communities afflicted by the blight. My colleague Ben Spencer introduced another Bill to create offences to address repeated breaches of planning enforcement. To his credit, Christopher Pincher, the then Planning Minister, was extremely generous with his time and met with me on several occasions to discuss my concerns and my proposal to make unauthorised developments illegal.
I recognise the government’s concern that tougher measures could catch genuine applicants who mistakenly fall outside their approved planning permission or the rules. However, that is precisely why my Bill proposed evaluating each individual breach and distinguishing between these honest mistakes and ‘egregious breaches’.
If the government wanted more time to consider how we may achieve this, ministers could now implement some quick solutions. As my colleague, Ben Spencer suggested, ministers should reform pre-existing provisions, rapidly speed up the enforcement process, and increase the applicable fines while limiting both the timescales and grounds for appeal.
I will continue to work with colleagues to push for reforms. If the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is not the right avenue for these changes, I believe any future Planning Bill will need to incorporate these reforms. The government must protect residents and deliver a tougher planning system to stop people from exploiting loopholes and ensure there is a level playing field for everyone.
Article by Gareth Bacon MP first published by ConservativeHome.