This official British system for controlling building and use of land was set up after 1945 to help bring back economic prosperity to a country widely levelled by the Second World War. Today, it is more often used as a political football; an excuse to get even with your neighbours; a way of protecting the environment; a way of legally despoiling the environment; and anything else you care to make it do. Put simply, there are likely to be only two occasions when you will become involved with the town planning system: when you want to build on land, or when you want to prevent someone else doing it.
Town and Country Planning is a collection of legislation which allows the state to control the development of land. This can include anything from house extensions to airports, to changes of use of your local newsagent to a kebab shop.
DETR stands for the Department of the Environment and the Regions and is the central government body that oversees the Planning System.
Planning Departments will usually be found within the echoing halls of local government offices (Councils) up and down the country. Sometimes they are hidden in places like 'Environment Directorate', 'Development Control', 'Environmental Services' and other similar titles. This is the level at which development plans are produced and that planning applications are considered, giggled over and sometimes granted planning permission.
The Planning Officer is a troubled soul whose only consolation is that Inland Revenue Officers and Journalists are hated more. They will be found working for local councils preparing the plans and dealing with the applications. Alternatively, they could be working for private consultancy firms on behalf of developers or private individuals.
A Planning Committee is a meeting of elected councillors of the local council who are generally local politicians and make the most wonderful, impartial, logical, fair and trustworthy decisions for the greater good of the country. Ahem...
Development Plans come in many forms. The common ones include the structure plan, which covers county or large city areas, and the local plan, showing how housing, commercial and industrial developments will be spread about either in general terms or specific terms. These are documents about planning for five years into the future, usually published five years late, using ideas from ten years ago and trying to deal with the problems we will meet in five years time. However cumbersome they are, they are very important for deciding the fate of planning applications.
Planning Applications are the way of obtaining planning permission to undertake work on land. Most councils will keep a useful guide to submitting these and you should not be afraid of talking to a planning officer at your local council for advice.
Planning Permission is the formal record that what you wish to do is legal. Not having one is a bad idea, especially after building that dream home in the Cotswolds1. A planning refusal is the opposite, but is also not good after building that house. They must contain reasons for refusal so that you know precisely why you have been turned down. You can appeal against the decision by referring the matter to the DETR. Any refusal with the phrase 'detrimental to the amenities of the area' should be referred back to the planning officer with a request that they clarify this standard response.
How do I find out what's happening in my area?
It's a common misconception that you have a right to know. Sorry, you don't. However, councils will be censured if they don't adopt the best practice in at least trying to let the public know that something is about to happen. So, read the boring bits of your local paper usually titled 'Public Notices'. It is here that you will find new development plan preparations published and it often lists new planning applications received, giving you a set time to go to the office, see the plans and comment accordingly. Some councils will send individual letters to neighbouring properties whereas others are developing websites to advertise applications.
If I go to the planning office, what can I see?
Once in your local council office, you will be able to talk to a pleasant receptionist who is obliged to show you at least two pieces of information: a copy of the planning application form which has the basic information on it about what its for and who is making the application, and a copy of the plans and drawings that accompanied it. Some councils will allow you to see other information like copy letters. A few really good ones will let you see the whole working file, warts and all.
How do I make my feelings known about what I've seen?
You can try writing down exactly what you think and why you feel the development is a bad idea. Don't be surprised if you receive a courteous but bland letter in reply. Be assured your letter is read but often lack of time for the staff prevents a more personal response.
If you really want to object to their plans, try talking to your local councillor, who may sympathise enough to speak on your behalf at the committee. Many councils now allow time for you to speak directly to the committee at the time of the meeting and when the decision is about to be made. Write to your MP in good time so that they can respond. Write to the applicant to see if they will change their plans, especially if a small change to them will mean a big difference to you.
Anything I can do about the decision?
If you didn't like the decision and want it changed, generally speaking, the answer is no. There is no right in this country for a third party to appeal against a decision to grant planning permission.
If you think the council made a right mess of dealing with the paperwork, try writing to the Local Government Ombudsman to complain. Their address can be obtained from the Council or the telephone book. It won't change the decision, but an order for compensation to you if the complaint is upheld may be possible. If you think the decision was reached unreasonably, a call for a judicial review to the courts is possible within six weeks of the decision. Obtain serious legal advice first though, as it can be expensive. If you think there is a problem with the system, join the Council for the Protection of Rural England, your local angry residents association, Friends of the Earth or get elected to the council.