PLANNING & ENFORCEMENT ADVICE
WHERE DO I BEGIN
I became familiar with heavy handed council tactics some 20 years ago when my Local Authority rammed through a Tree Preservation Order on a number of dangerous and diseased trees surrounding my home. What got my attention, was that I objected in writing, but the Wealden District Council ignored my objection. A few letters later and Wealden were forced to schedule a hearing. Several trees were removed from the Order. Unfortunately, this early victory blotted my copy book with this Council and started the ongoing vendetta, I hope to prove one day in a Court of Law. If you rub your Council up the wrong way, you've got an enemy for life. So be prepared for a long haul if you make this mistake.
EQUALITY IN A FREE COUNTRY
I firmly believe in equality for all - a bit of a Robinson Crusoe fan actually. By this I mean that everyone should have the opportunity to build a good life for themselves and to prosper. Most councils would disagree. They want to take control of your life. Well, to a certain extent in a civilised society we must all follow rules - to this concept I do not object, just so long as the rules are reasonable and democratic, and most importantly, do not discriminate.
I BURIED MY HEAD IN THE SAND
Like most people faced with countless uninvited visitations, I tried to ignore them to preserve my sanity. I also believed these so called officials were fair and honest. Also, like most people I could not spare the time to cancel my career to study law, or to attend council meetings or otherwise investigate. I was much too busy as an engineer. Five years went by. Under protest, I moved out of my home and bought another property to live in. A tactical withdrawal.
Due to financial circumstances and the burst bubble of the late eighties, I moved back into the building my Council were trying to prevent me using a few years later. I was very confused because they still appeared to want a historic building to stand idle deteriorating, but Wealden would not admit to the history. All the Council shenanigans ruined my private life. Eventually, as the stakes got higher, I started taking an interest in planning law. By this time another 10 years had passed. In hindsight, I should have shelved my career as an engineer and I might as well have done, because it is not possible to operate rationally under such stress, hence whatever it is you are striving for will not receive the attention it deserves. Indeed, council's very often use this as their trump card, because after a few years most people just give up.
However, a stroke of luck in 1997 gave me new hope. It came home to me 'big time' just how wrong my Council had been, when by chance a gardener living just 10 miles away confirmed the historic origins of my home. All of this just proves, that you have to put your life on hold to investigate your Council thoroughly. Later still other persons investigating Wealden found out this Council had known about the history all along. Secret enforcement papers revealed the officers had presented biased reports. Of course you are not allowed to see these papers normally. I was posted mine anonymously. I doubt if you'll have that luck!
I took on my first big Public Inquiry in 1997. Wealden District Council had demolished a horse sanctuary near Polegate in East Sussex. The previous owner had permission to use stables for this purpose, but this Council disliked the new owners even more. Unfortunately, the Human Rights Act was some years away, so we could not argue what was a clear case of discrimination. Fortunately, the Inspector hearing the Appeal was a very fair man. Despite all the spin Wealden put on the case, the net result was the sanctuary gained permission to rebuild the stables. This brought it home to me that Council's are counterproductive to natural development and what is worse, appear to actually enjoy giving the less able to defend themselves a hard time.
As I said, it is difficult when you are constantly bombarded by officialdom, to keep thinking clearly. However, this is where you must remain level headed and focus on the issues. Look at what your Council are not saying. You simply must research the law and keep up with local events. I had to because I could not afford to employ a solicitor knowledgeable in planning matters.
I have learned a good deal on how to tackle a runaway Council. I say runaway, because the Members (councillors) are supposed to keep their officers in check by law. Unfortunately, that is not always possible simply because the members are elected and untrained. They come into local politics for the most part with a desire to contribute to their community. What they find is often beyond their ability to put right in such a short space of time (a term) and after that they can become blasť about the corruption they joined to stand against. The trouble with this is that in not standing up for right they become culpable and the officers have got them. Even more worrisome, the officers assure them they are immune from negligence claims, which of course they are not, or should not be according to Article 13 of the European Human Rights Convention - unfortunately not yet part of domestic law.
I would guess that is you are having trouble, the officers of your Council have been installed a long time. Mine were. The core officers are seasoned and well versed in manipulating fresh members using delay and half answers to thwart awkward questions. Where our local Action Group began recording committee meetings to provide an accurate record, it is a fact that most Councils now record their own meetings. Lord Nolan suggested no officer should serve more than 5 years in any position - but you try and move a planner from his job, they are well paid and don't want to move.
The above speaks only of enforcement, appeals and the like, where there are bound to be problems, and where discrimination and dirty tricks creep in.. The truth is the vast majority of planning applications are decided fairly. I would put it as high as 97%. Sadly, the remaining 3% pulls the system into disrepute. Even more problematical, is that the same core officers in every Council decide 100% of the applications and enforcement issues. The rules (constitution) are written by the officers to suit themselves. The best thing therefore is to keep a low profile and get your application dealt with in the mainstream 98%.
What is clear, is that if your Council make a mistake, they will not usually admit to it, but rather seek to hide their incompetence. It is quite extraordinary the lengths some officers will go to obtain a decision in their favour. They are masters of spin. Evidence will go missing from files at inconvenient moments and memories go blank in the witness box. At the moment planning officers are relatively safe and members also protected. This is because when a company or individual finally accumulates sufficient evidence to bring an action, they go after the Council. They should of course go after the officer(s) and member(s) as well as the Council they serve. Don't let them get away scott free. Obviously, it is better to go with the flow, than move such a mountain. Hence, I would caution anyone thinking of taking on their Council without the benefit of legal insurance or legal aid.
A COUNCILLORS PERSPECTIVE
When contacting your local councilor, explain your problem briefly and to the point. In my case the local Member was set against me and refused to listen, but only because I left it so long to join in the game. By that time and being un-represented, this member had gone with the officers for so long, that despite being an amateur archaeologist, he turned a blind eye to the history he should have been out to protect. Unfortunately, this member passed away and I don't like speaking ill of the dead.
Hence you should communicate with your member as early as practicable or speak with other local councillors until you find one sympathetic to your concerns. In fact every Councillor is duty bound to protect you against unfavorable treatment or discrimination and to represent you. You are entitled to lobby the members. Should your local member have listened to a neighbour first, then seek another ear. Almost all planning disputes arise from some kind of neighbour contact, or failure of the proposer (developer) to adequately inform close by landowners and listen to them. You might remind your Members of their obligation ever so politely. Don't force it down their throat. They are not well paid for what they do. Hence, they must want to represent their community.
When you find a good guy (advocate), don't burden him with triviality. Don't mislead or keep vital information from your advocate. Otherwise, he or she might take the view your concerns are less well founded than you make out and cause him or her to question your judgment. If you want things kept confidential, tell him so.
Lastly, I would just like to say to the growing number of affected members of the public who telephone or email me, that I am so very pleased if anything we have published can be used to further just decision making. The encouragement is mutual! Lastly, if you cannot find what you are looking for on these pages and need some help, please help me to help others by emailing first. Please reserve the telephone for emergencies only.