Cut us some slack

Given the current global pandemic, an inspector found it appropriate to cut some slack for a local planning authority, refusing to award costs against it for failing to determine a change of use planning application within the requisite period (DCS Number 400-027-724). 

The appellant complained that the council’s delays in determining his application for change of use of a property in Cambridge from a six-person house in multiple occupation to an eight-person house in multiple occupation had resulted in unnecessary costs. 

The planning application was dated 15 April 2020, the inspector recorded. Via letter dated 26 May, the council informed the applicant that the application was valid effective from 16 April, which gave a determination date of 11 June. The inspector agreed that a letter confirming the validity of a planning application over five weeks after it has been submitted and made valid is sub-optimal in terms of letting an applicant know when the statutory life of their application has started. That said, he continued, the letter did offer some explanation for the delay, and the date of informing the applicant was still within the eight-week period for issuing a decision. He noted that, as well as a recent IT system upgrade, the council referred to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic as a delaying factor. He acknowledged that the public health situation not only meant a lot of staff working away from council offices but also movement restrictions had led to site visits being put on hold and in some cases, no doubt, staff redeployed in the community. 

Setting the IT systems issues aside, the inspector thought it would be unfair to levy too much criticism at the council for delays caused by the pandemic. Quite simply, he recorded, the council was but one organisation which could not have foreseen the impacts of what was, and continues to be, an unprecedented global health crisis. He was also mindful that the 26 May letter explained that a revised determination date could be agreed. It struck the inspector that at this point there would already be a backlog of cases either awaiting decision or awaiting their site visit or responses to consultations, any parties inputting to which might have been similarly affected. On the basis of what he had seen it seemed to him that the council had made some effort to explain the situation and what measures could be taken to rectify it, and potentially expedite a decision on the case.

The council made contact with the applicant again on 15 June explaining that tentative steps were being made to resume site visits and to arrange one for the application, the inspector noted. He acknowledged that, again, some further weeks had passed but this was only four days after the end of the statutory eight-week life of the planning application. All things considered, he did not find this unreasonable, frustrating though it would have been for the applicant. 

The appellant submitted the appeal against non-determination three days after the council made contact about arranging a site visit. The inspector accepted that this was the appellant’s right since a decision had not been reached inside the eight-week life of the application, but calculated that this in itself was only seven days after the end of that eight-week life. All things being equal, the inspector declined to say that a period of seven days past the determination date was unreasonable. Nor could he agree that the seven days had incurred any unnecessary costs. He reasoned that the appeal against non-determination was the appellant’s choice and thus costs from that point onwards should be entirely self-borne.

The inspector concluded that the council had not acted unreasonably or caused the applicant unnecessary or wasted expense, and refused to make an award of costs. 

Section 6.1 of DCP Online concerns costs awards.