An open letter to Dr. Ruth Kelly M.P.

Secretary of State for Local Government and Communities

Dear Dr. Kelly,

This letter is being written because it has proved impossible to get proper acknowledgment of errors committed by departments for which you are ultimately responsible.

These are South Oxfordshire District Council, the Council Ombudsman and the Planning Inspectorate. What follows is a disgraceful story, not just of errors, - all a matter of record, but of intransigence and a stubborn refusal to admit fault and unwind an ever-worsening situation.

What follows is just one case. Others, relating both to dissatisfaction with councils and the LGO, can be seen on web-sites dedicated to recording the failings of these bodies.

In connection with a planning application made in December 2003, I was wrongly accused of being in contravention of planning when I commenced work on building a boundary wall and forming a hard-standing on newly acquired land adjacent to my property, a listed building in a conservation area. This work was permitted development under the Town & Country Planning Act and explained as such in planning guidance publications. The work was ancillary to, but not part of, a planning application to build a carport which would utilise the wall to form two of its sides.

The boundary wall and the formation of a hard-standing, became an issue when the council's Forestry Officer visited the site at the request of both the Planning Officer and myself. This to consult in relation to impact, if any, of the proposed carport on mature trees nearby, and to give any relevant advice.

This Forestry Officer, who turned up without the promised notice, three months after being first asked to attend, took umbrage when he found work underway. He objected to the excavation required for the wall and hard-standing, said that my (then) ignorance of the law was no excuse, and submitted an adverse report to the Planning Officer.

In fact it would appear that it was he who misunderstood his powers under Section 211 of the T&CPA, which was the regulation under which the council later claimed he had acted. The regulation is specific to situations where felling, topping or lopping a tree is proposed. In such circumstances a Council has the power to issue a tree preservation order, but this only within a time limit of 6 weeks from receiving notice of the work. No such work was proposed, the single tree within a prescribed area being in my neighbour's garden.

The Planning Directorate has confirmed to me that it would appear to them a) that no 211 notice was required, b) that nevertheless, notice was issued by virtue of contacts with the Forestry Officer (five contacts = 5 notices) and c) that in default of action within 6 weeks, the applicant was free to go ahead with any proposed felling, topping or lopping (none proposed anyway).

In connection with my later complaint, the council refused to take heed of the opinion of the Planning Directorate which one would think to be a superior authority on the subject. Nor will they acknowledge the impact of their Forestry Officer's report on later developments.

Returning now to February 2004, the Planning Officer failed to pick up the facts that, firstly, she had been advised in the December 2003 planning application, that the work on the wall was in progress, and that the work to which the F.O. objected was permitted development, i.e. did not require her approval (nor his). Nor did she understand the disconnect between work to a tree and other work. There is evidence that she was not then (and probably still isn't) familiar with Section 211.

It was maladministration therefore to return to the site, in a visibly bad mood, armed with a camera, to photograph the work on the hard-standing and wall. This on the basis that this was a contravention of planning which should not be condoned (her words) and thus taken into account in deciding on the planning application.

To give a planning approval for the carport would be to condone the work in hand so, logically, a refusal became inevitable at that point. This refusal mystified the Parish Council, the Thame Preservation Society and Thame ward councillors on the SODC.

Incidentally it transpired, in connection with later developments, that ward (planning) councillors are not allowed to vote on applications from their own ward, despite them being the best informed on that area. Declaring an interest and abstaining is one thing. A blanket ban is another and I don't think you are prevented from voting on anything that might conceivably affect your own constituency.

Thus a project to which the P.O. had previously had no planning objections, was not decided on its own merit, and it suddenly acquired a multitude of policy objections.

Neighbouring Councils have confirmed to me that it is illogical to state "No planning objections" in preliminary discussions and later to find planning policies breached.

As though to emphasise the maladministration, many of the policies, listed in the refusal and listed in the P.O.'s internal report, clearly had no connection with the project being considered.

The determination to justify a refusal also lead the P.O. to arrange to contradict her own Conservation Officer who had found (and still says) that the project would have no adverse impact on the conservation area nor on the associated listed building.

To make matters worse, the P.O. wrote an objection to the roof design so carelessly, that this was easily misinterpreted by the Council's Appeals Officer during the appeal which followed the refusal.

A detail of the roof design had been given as one of the reasons for refusal, despite this matter having been apparently resolved in pre-application discussions. So, following the refusal there were discussions on this design aspect, with Planning eventually offering to consult their own Building Inspector, since they considered him to be more knowledgeable than themselves on the matter involved. They discarded his opinion when he supported me.

However a further sad chapter got added when, due to the carelessly written phrase by the P.O. The Appeals Officer informed the Inspector that the council had a preference for a ridged roof. In fact, neither pre nor post refusal had SODC Planning expressed any desire for a ridged roof. They are even on record as saying, "A ridged roof would be too big".

Despite it being pointed out to him, the Inspector failed to pick up that this was a "new issue", which, without supporting justification, would be considered unfair under the Inspectorate's own rules, likely leading in the case of heard appeals to an award of costs. Clearly, the definition of fairness does not change where the appeal is by written submission. The Appeals Officer's job was to defend the refusal. This precluded the raising of issues not part of that refusal. To do so is maladministration.

The Council refuses to acknowledge this simple fact by refusing to answer the question "Who first raised the issue of a ridged roof?"

The Appeals Officer also managed to set the wrong tone by referring to my application as having been "partially retrospective. This was completely false - thus further maladministration.

For their part, the Inspectorate has refused to acknowledge either that an error was made in respect of the roof preference, or that I appear to have proved that the matter was a new issue. Their answer was to find themselves not guilty, and cut off contact.

Complaints to the council ended in the same way, with the Chief Executive instructing his staff not to reply to my complaints. "Certain errors" had been acknowledged by his deputy, but not precisely defined. The Council even returned the planning fee. However they are able to persuade themselves that, despite the acknowledged errors (plus undefined "alleged" errors), and an actual stated decision to punish, the correct planning decision was somehow arrived at.

SODC also prefers to ignore the fact that, under their own rules, because a refusal was in disagreement with the (approving) Parish Council, the application should have gone to committee and not have been decided under delegated power by the Planning Officer. Not to respond on this matter is more maladministration.

With the Council unwilling to unwind its errors, a complaint was lodged with the Local Government Ombudsman.

Despite obtaining a response to my complaint from the council, proving that the council did not dispute the LGO's authority, the Ombudsman declared that he had no jurisdiction. His excuse being that I had opted to an alternative procedure in appealing to the Planning Inspectorate.

Argument that the appeal was not an "alternative", since the LGO has no authority to overturn a planning decision and that the matters raised were in connection with maladministration, and not on the merits or otherwise of the planning application, fell on deaf ears. Even confirmation from the Inspectorate that the maladministration issues I had raised in my appeal had not been considered pertinent to the merits of the application, and thus not for them to comment on, was ignored.

Faced with my further arguments, the LGO did what they have done before with others. They cut off further communication.

Back at SODC, I faced a planning department which now insisted that it was bound to require a pitched roof in any new application, "Because the Inspector says so". There was a stubborn refusal to see that the Inspector had actually not said anything of the sort. However a compromise was offered in that they would allow a slate roof, which would allow a lower pitch than tiles, thus partially accommodating the desire of both myself and the Conservation Officer, for a "low key" design.

My protests that this arrangement introduced both a foreign material and a foreign pitch to the site and was irresponsible, were simply not responded to. Even when I obtained from the Inspectorate confirmation that the Council was free to approve whatever they saw fit to, without reference to earlier matters, they couldn't bring themselves to relent. Presumably a loss of face was involved.

So, three years after first approaching SODC Planning, I am about to receive consent for a design using a low pitch roof of slate. This instead of the almost flat mono-pitch roof which I (and SODC planning originally) though appropriate.

After 35 years of lavishing care, attention and money on an important property, I am being forced to build something out of keeping and irresponsible. Why? - because officials cannot bring themselves to admit fault. And part of that process is to close themselves off from protest.

The competence and effectiveness of the Council Ombudsman is a subject in itself. I will spare you further comment here but I would be happy to enlarge to someone interested in improving that so-called service.

This case may seem minor in itself, but it is the revealing of a sick system that is important. If officials cannot be trusted on small matters, how can they be effective, honest and efficient on larger issues?

Like the web-site revealing the LGO's shortcomings, another exists with a multitude of complaints against councils. Are you interested in making things different? If so, speak to some people who have insight on the problems and some ideas relating to solutions.

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Copyright © 2006 - Peter Webb
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E-mail ijjohnston@totalise.co.uk