Gary Collins (Head of Development Management) and Steve Pearce (Group Manager – Development Management) introduced the agenda item to Members. They briefly explained the role of the Councils Planning Enforcement Function within the context of the planning system and the legislation which it operates within. Officers said they had a responsibility to investigate any breach of planning but not to take action. They went on to explain how careful they have to be when investigating a reported breach of planning control and be very clear as to whether an alleged breach is definitely a breach before taking any action. It was said the Council can be severely penalised if it is found to have made the wrong decision, for example, they may have to pay compensation if a developer has ceased the work. So, when deciding whether to take action the Council has to decide if it is it ‘expedient’ to act.
It was said the current legislation was last reviewed in 1992 and was considered a ‘blunt instrument’.
It was confirmed that the Planning Enforcement Team are funded by income from planning applications fees and do not generate any additional income as part of the function. If that income reduces, difficult decisions have to be made about the number of officers in the team The team had previously consisted of 6.5 full-time officers but currently stands at 3.5 full-time officers with an additional officer seconded to the team to work on the specific area of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO).
Members enquired about the reduced number of enforcement notices being issued. Officers confirmed the numbers were down and that also Bristol were below other Core Cities as well on the number of notices issued. This it was said was mainly due to how the pandemic had impacted officer’s ability to carry out site inspections. However, the figures were now said to be almost back to pre-Covid levels. It was also confirmed that the figures were now being tracked by the Council’s Development Control Committees.
It was noted that officers had sent Commission Members a list of HMO case studies ahead of meeting. Officers said that work was very labour intensive and required considerable time to address and resolve those cases. It was said there were still a hard-core of 7 remaining cases where investigations were ongoing to see if there was enough evidence of them being used as HMOs.
A Member asked about ‘Figure 3.7 Figure f) Enforcement Notices issued by Core Cities’ in the published report and why Leeds appeared so different from most others? Officers said they undertook bench-marking exercises and that Leeds did receive more applications than Bristol and it appeared there was a correlation between the number of enforcement officers and the number of notices served.
It was then asked if cases were ‘falling through the cracks’ and was the problem widespread? Officers replied that this was a reactionary service and signalled to Table 3.2. in the report that indicated that a good service would show equity between the number of cases registered versus the number of cases closed. They conceded they were behind schedule but there was a need to manage expectations as well and provide some commentary about what is actually possible.
A Member raised concerns with Figure 3.5 in the report, which indicated that throughout 2021/2022 only 12 out of 556 cases registered had resulted in a legal notice being served. He then asked officers if they thought breaches were happening because Bristol had a reputation where enforcement wasn’t very robust and developers thought they can get away with it? He added there were examples is his Ward regarding Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) where mature trees were being felled with little or no punishment other being requested to plant a small young tree to replace it. It was concerning if the Council were perhaps giving the impression it was ‘gun-shy’ on these matters.
Members asked about existing TPOs and if it was known if all the trees were actually still there and was there a list of all current TPOs? The Bristol Tree Forum said it did have a ward-by-ward TPO map. Members expressed interest in receiving the if possible.
ACTION: Bristol Tree Forum to forward a link to a list of all TPO’s so it can to distributed to the Commission.
The reduction in the number of enforcement notices being served was raised again and a Member asked if they were measured as a performance indicator. Officers said yes the number of notices served was a key performance indicator (KPI) and there was a ‘sweet spot’ they aimed to achieve but they were conscious of the figures going down.
The Director – Economy of Place acknowledged there were clear issues of concern and that staff resources were part of the issue. He said that the potential £30m gap in the Council’s finances would not help either and the situation could potentially worsen. He agreed that the earlier suggestion during public forum of a voluntary route was a good one.
A Member said that it wasn’t only Councillors but also many citizens who also had concerns about enforcement or the perceived lack of. He said it was not just planning but all kinds of enforcement such as graffiti, fly-tipping and parking that the public wanted to see more of. However, it was acknowledged there weren’t currently enough funds to undertake it. He concurred that the Council was, as officers had described ‘very reactive’ and suggested that consolidating enforcement activity across the Council could be part of the solution.
A Member suggested that a random selection of checking developments would send a signal to builders that plans needed to be adhered to. Officers said that type of proactive enforcement used to occur when there were 6 or 7 Members of the team but with it now very trimmed down they were not able to deliver a more proactive type of service.
A Member referred to section 5.1 of the Councill’s Local Enforcement Plan (published on the meeting webpage) processes and said they could understand that some breaches were genuine mistakes. However, other breaches were likely to be serial rogue landlords or cowboy builders who perceived they could get away with it. Was there anything that could be done to crack down on repeat offenders? Officers said they were working within the powers of the Enforcement Plan. The Member suggested in future it could reference that if the Council knows who they are and they have poor track record it will be factored into how future cases are dealt with.
A Member asked about retrospective permission and fees. They suggested that if work was done differently than they had originally stated, then they should be paying a fee or it should be increased if permissions is granted retrospectively. Officers confirmed there was currently no financial or legal penalty for permission be granted retrospectively but this was something that the Government could potentially consider in future when they reviewed nationally set fees.
Members asked if there were plans to review the Local Enforcement Plan as it appeared there were clear indications that the public wanted the Council to be more robust in its enforcement. Officers confirmed that the Plan was ready to be reviewed again.
A Member suggested the matter required some joint lobbying to Government and offered to write a statement that the commission could all sign. There appeared to be general agreement from other Members and it was also suggested that other Core Cites could be invited to do the same. The officers said they were meeting with them soon and could include this on the agenda.
The Chair thanked officers for their time and the valuable discussion.