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Abundant enforcement armoury requires pro-active approach

No hiding place: Planners and the Proceeds of Crime Act

The planning enforcement armoury is overflowing, says Stephen Bate.

At the recent NAPE annual conference, speakers were queuing up to inform delegates of their favoured method of dealing with offences, primarily as a more effective alternative to an authority’s normal go-to solution of a prosecution.

Emma Williamson (LB Haringey) and Scott Stemp (No. 5 Chambers) praised confiscation orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA), to recoup offender’s ill-gotten gains. Jack Smyth (also No. 5 Chambers) favoured the use of Injunctions, with the threat of locking-up offenders. Tom Wicks (enforcement services) commended direct action, the demolition of unauthorised structures bringing the ultimate conclusion to cases.

The point was made that local authorities shouldn’t hesitate but should head straight for their copious armoury of enforcement tools. But given the mammoth arsenal now available to local authorities, and the conflicting merits put forward regarding the efficacy of each method, is it no wonder that council officers are confused as to the best way of dealing with offenders.

Let’s have a quick re-cap of the relative merits of each method. Confiscation orders under POCA, have recouped six figure sums of money from unscrupulous landlords and developers. Given that councils can claim back 37.5 per cent of the fine, this type of action can help fund an expanding enforcement service. On the negative side, this approach needs a successful prosecution action to start with. It also needs careful research by a financial investigator.

Injunctions, with the threat of locking-up offenders, can be a huge deterrent. They are particularly useful for anticipated breaches, such as preventing the establishment of unlawful traveller sites. They can also be effective in ensuring that an offender does what he says he’s going to do. On the negative side, they need an effective working relationship with legal officers and easy access to the High Court.

Direct action, involving the demolition of unauthorised structures has the effect of immediately resolving a breach. There is good physical evidence of a council’s action which can also act as a huge deterrent. However, this form of action can sometimes appear very draconian. It needs to have a highly coordinated approach, best contracted-out to experienced firms, which make it a resource-hungry exercise, with no guarantee that costs will ever be retrieved.

Any of the above approaches can be targeted towards the worse reprobates; serial offenders, rogue landlords or unscrupulous land owners. Enforcement officers must weigh up the advantages of appropriate action on a case-by-case basis. What might be appropriate for one breach may not be relevant for another. Officers must be analytical and ingenious in finding the most effective way to take the necessary action. Contacts need to be built-up with legal teams, barristers, financial investigators and direct action contractors. Members must show commitment to providing appropriate resourcing of the planning enforcement service. Councils must be pro-active and be prepared when the time comes for action. Enforcement must no longer be viewed as the Cinderella service!

Stephen Bate MRTPI is senior planning officer at Derby City Council.

Image credit | Shutterstock


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