Council’s bill rises as developers win more planning appeals

Taxpayers are footing the bill for spiralling compensation payouts to developers who are winning more and more appeals in the absence of the Local Plan, writes Craig Blackburn. The number of successful appeals where costs have been awarded against Cornwall Council is rising sharply. The figure is on target to quadruple this year, and is set to cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

According to the chairman of the council’s strategic planning committee, Rob Nolan, the local authority is being penalised by the Government for turning down applications because it is going against the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which was introduced in March 2012 to speed up development. “The Government has said it wants to build its way out of the recession, and the NPPF has been described as a developer’s charter,” he says. “At the same time the Government bangs on about localism, giving people the impression they have a say in local development. “Yet when we listen to local views, and refuse planning permission, on what we think are sound planning grounds, we find the planning inspector not only turns around our decision, but grants costs against us. “Until recently costs were only awarded against the council where we had been cavalier in our decisions. “But now it seems they’re being used to punish us.”

Between April 2013 and March 2014, costs were awarded against the council in only eight cases. In the last six months alone, costs have been awarded against the council in 16 cases. “This is a worrying trend,” he says. “We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. “We want to listen to local people, we want to do what is right for Cornwall, but we can’t keep paying out awards of costs to developers.”

Most appeals are dealt with in writing between the appellant, the council’s team and the Planning Inspectorate, a government agency in Bristol. But some go to public enquiry, which escalates costly drastically because of the fees of legal teams on both sides, which often includes a QC. These enquiries can also last up to two weeks. One such public enquiry against the refusal of plans for 12 industrial units at Pool Fields in Falmouth landed the council with a £27,000 bill after it lost the appeal.

The planning consultant on this application was CSA Architects. Managing director Justin Dodge said his firm has received £87,000 in costs awarded against the council from three appeals alone within the last year. He adds that another planning consultancy is awaiting confirmation of a payout in the region of £200,000 from a successful appeal against the refusal of a development of 100 houses at Upper Chapel in Launceston earlier this year. He says that, since the NPPF, and in the absence of the Local Plan, consultants like CSA are winning more and more appeals, with increasing numbers of costs being awarded against the council – and it is a trend which looks set to continue. “We have not needed to appeal historically,” he said. “It has only been in the last 18 months since the new cavalier planning committees were appointed, that we have been needed to take more of our cases to appeal. “They have a complete and utter disregard for policy. They are reckless and out of control.”

During the appeal process, the appellant’s argument is usually upheld when the council has acted unreasonably. According to Mr Dodge, the reason for CSA’s success in recent cases is because the council failed to provide enough evidence to support its reasons for refusal – which is judged as unreasonable. “It is particularly frustrating when the professional planning officer, from Cornwall Council, makes a recommendation which is completely disregarded and overturned by the planning committee, without any compelling rationale,” he says. “Sadly, this has become commonplace in the last 18 months, with most committee decisions being against officer recommendations and therefore we expect to pursue more planning appeals than ever before.” But Mr Dodge adds that most of his clients spend, on average, £15,000-20,000 on submitting an application, and some can spend as much as £100,000 on launching an appeal against a decision, spending heavily on legal teams and consultants. 

“We know planning policy inside out,” he says. “This is our business. We don’t go into planning applications light heartedly. But the true cost of a planning appeal can never be fully established, including the council’s own time and resources, as well as the time delays to the projects affected by the process.” Since the NPPF was introduced, Cornwall Council has been developing the Local Plan – a blueprint for the amount of development and where it should be located. This policy document, which has received input from local town and parish councils, developers and members of the public, is due to be debated at full council next month, before being sent to the Government for approval. No-one knows how long this process will take.

Until the plan is approved, says Neil Hatton, Cornwall councillor for Constantine, Budock and Mawnan, near Falmouth, it is “open season” for developers. “The NPPF is there to support sustainable development,” he says. “It has certainly encouraged a lot more people to put in applications and challenge the system through the appeals inspectorate– people are testing it out. “A lot more appeals have been based on the sustainable argument because of the lack of the local plan – it is more difficult to refuse these. “Cornwall’s weakness is the Local Plan [or lack of it]. 

“It has not been put to the Government for approval and, while it carries a little weight, it doesn’t carry a huge amount at the moment. It is open season for developers at the moment without the policies in place under the Local Plan.” Mr Hatton is due to attend an appeal against 153 houses on Bickland Water Road on December 9, which has been turned down by Cornwall Council. CSA is the planning consultant on the project. Planning consultant Stephen Payne says the NPPF was designed to encourage “more positive decision-making” regarding rural and urban growth – to grant more planning applications – particularly with regard to housing. “We didn’t find that quite to the extent that we expected,” he says. “There was a change of attitude initially. But gradually they have fallen back into their old ways. We are seeing worse and worse decisions as we are going along. And it was disappointing that when we got to appeal they didn’t follow the government’s lead. We would expect the planning inspectorate to toe the government line. There are a lot of developments that should have been built that have not been.”

For councillor Nolan, the whole system is flawed. “I’m not sure that the appeal system does work well,” he says. “Cornwall has a unique character – and a delicate infrastructure, we cannot keep up with unlimited development – and an inspector who might be based in Swindon may apply judgements that work for Swindon, but not for St Ives. Essentially, inspectors are too remote, and not accountable for their decisions.” Last week the council approved budget cuts of £196m. This, he says, only adds to the problem. “Budget cutbacks are already causing problems. Officers have a heavy caseload, and ironically it’s the developers that are complaining that it’s taking too long to process applications.” He added that Mr Dodge’s comments would ‘ring hollow’ with residents of Launceston, Gwinear, Goonhavern, Truro, Probus and many other communities who have fought, or are fighting what he calls “inappropriate developments driven by developers needs, rather than sensible planned growth.”

Neither Phil Mason, the council’s head of service for planning, housing and regeneration, nor Edwina Hannaford, the portfolio holder for environment, heritage and planning, were unavailable for comment.Midas Developments asked residents in September last year what they thought about its plans to build 153 houses between Falmouth and Budock. The application was turned down and the appeal is due to be held on Tuesday Dec 9.

Housing Development Consultation. Falmouth. Kay Menthem, Noel King and Jane Wooldridge who all live near to the site. Midas Developments asked residents in September last year what they thought about its plans to build 153 houses between Falmouth and Budock. The application was turned down and the appeal is due to be held on Tuesday Dec 9. Housing Development Consultation. Falmouth. Justin Dodge – Managing Director of CSA Architects and Russell Dodge of Business Location Services with a plan of the development.