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Ombudsman accuses council of failing to apply correct law in planning case

The Local Government Ombudsman has urged a borough council to provide conservation training for all its planning officers after accusing the authority of failing to apply the correct law and guidance.

In a report, which can be viewed here, the LGO also claimed that Northampton Borough Council had: failed to consult with Historic England; failed to record pre-planning advice; and validated a planning application without the necessary information.

The Ombudsman’s investigation related to Northampton’s handling of an application for planning permission for a café extension in a conservation area.

The café, which was owned by a local elected councillor, was 60 metres from a Grade 1 listed building.

A conservation officer recommended amendments be made to the design to improve its appearance and reduce the impact upon the listed building and the conservation area.

Despite this concern, the planning officer omitted the conservation officer’s recommendation in his report to members and recommended approval of the application.

According to the LGO, the officer also referred to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, where he should have based his recommendation on the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. 

The 1990 Act imposes a duty to pay special attention on both preserving the building or its setting, and also preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of a conservation area.

A regular user of the park where the café is located subsequently complained to the Ombudsman about the council’s decision.

The LGO said that during its investigation it became apparent that Northampton had not consulted with Historic England (then English Heritage). 

The Ombudsman contacted Historic England, and a representative from that organisation reportedly said it was "clear" that the café extension would affect the setting of the listed building and the council should therefore have consulted them about the proposals.

The LGO also uncovered correspondence from Historic England which showed that this was not the first occasion Northampton had not consulted properly with them on planning applications affecting historic assets.

The Ombudsman said its investigation found the council’s failure to have regard to a material planning consideration – that of the setting of the listed building and conservation area – was fault.

It also found the council’s failure to consult with Historic England was fault, and there was fault in the way the council validated the application contrary to its own planning policy.

The LGO recommended that Northampton Borough Council should:

  • apologise to Mr B, the complainant, for mishandling the planning application and for not treating his complaints about this properly;
  • introduce, as a matter of urgency, conservation training for all its planning officers. Such training was available from Historic England and might be available elsewhere, it said. The LGO also called for confirmation from the council within three months of the date of the report that this had been done;
  • undertake an immediate review of its procedures for dealing with planning applications which affect heritage assets. “It should put measures in place to ensure, and to monitor, that all applications affecting heritage assets are referred to its conservation officers and, on their advice, to Historic England. It should confirm to us within three months of the date of this report that this has been done.”

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said: “Local people will only have faith in the planning process if applications are considered against the right local and national frameworks. This case highlights how this trust can be lost when buildings of exceptional importance are not properly protected.

“I would now urge Northampton Borough Council to consider my report and accept my recommendations to help preserve the area’s assets for future generations. I would also encourage other local authorities to check their own planning procedures to make sure their historic buildings are given the proper protection afforded to them in law.”