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Review of Neighbour Notification - Research Findings

DescriptionThis report reviews the Neighbour Notification Scheme whereby an applicant seeking planning permission must inform people of plans and give an opportunity for representation to be made.
ISBN
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 29, 1998
Environment Research Programme Research Findings No. 8 (1995)
Review of Neighbour Notification

School of Planning and Housing, Edinburgh College of Art/Heriot-Watt University
and Peter PC Allan (Chartered Town Planning Consultants) Ltd

ISBN 0-7480-2905-2Publisher The Scottish OfficePrice £5.00
A statutory system of notification of planning applications has been in place in Scotland since 1981. Revisions to the procedures were made in 1984 and further minor amendments were introduced in 1992. The procedures essentially require an applicant seeking planning permission to serve owners, lessees and occupiers of neighbouring land with a notice about the proposal, telling them where plans can be inspected and the period within which representations can be made. It is the responsibility of the applicant to certify to the Planning Authority that notice has been given, or that notification is not required because there are no notifiable neighbours, or that notice has not been given because there are no premises to which notices can be sent.
Research commissioned by The Scottish Office Environment Department aimed to review the current neighbour notification procedures to ensure that they meet the Government's objectives for a fair, open and reliable system without placing an unreasonable burden on the applicant or planning authority. This review made a number of recommendations aimed at improving the overall effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of neighbour notification and these recommendations will form the basis of a consultation paper to be issued by The Scottish Office Environment Department Planning Division later in 1995.
Main findings
  • The principles of neighbour notification are widely supported. There was no discernible support for abandoning or significantly reducing the requirements for neighbour notification.
  • Neighbours want more involvement, information and guidance on the notification procedures. They also want more opportunities to make representations, especially if changes to applications are made.
  • Planning officers and applicants agreed that the neighbour notification system needs to be simplified and made more flexible, with notification requirements in more harmony with the nature of the proposed development.
  • There are wide variations in practice by planning authorities in relation to their interpretation of neighbour notification requirements, the advice they give to applicants and how they operate the procedures.
Objectives and methodology
The overall aim of the study was to evaluate the operation of the notification procedures as set out in current legislation, including whether they continue to serve a useful purpose, and if so, to make recommendations on how they might be improved either through radical change or by specific amendments to current arrangements, having regard to Citizen's Charter principles, the Deregulation Initiative and in particular effectiveness, efficiency and economy.
More specific objectives of the research were:-
  • to review the objectives of neighbour notification
  • to assess the benefits and value of the notification system
  • to review the operation of current procedures and to identify any weaknesses
  • to consider possible alternatives for addressing such identified weaknesses in the procedures, including the scope to secure a simpler, cheaper, more reliable and less time consuming mechanism to safeguard interests of the public, developers and planning authorities
  • to test the alternatives against the Government's objectives
  • to make detailed recommendations for an improved system and how such recommendations should be implemented.
The review of the neighbour notification procedures comprised four key elements:-

i. the development of a framework for evaluation based on a review of literature, including previous research on the operation of neighbour notification and publicity for planning applications in other parts of the UK, a legal review of the administrative and procedural aspects, and a review of complaints to the Commissioner for Local Administration in Scotland.

ii. focused discussion groups with planning officers and planning applicants/agents in order to clarify the main issues and identify possible illustrative case studies.

iii. 28 in-depth case studies of planning applications in different localities, including inner urban, suburban and rural, illustrating the full range of issues arising from the operation of neighbour notification procedures. This involved semi structured interviews with the case officers, applicants/agents involved in each case and a sample of neighbours.

iv. a synthesis of research findings and exploration of alternative approaches to tackling the main problems identified.

Key findings from the reviews and case studies
Literature review
  • Practice in Scotland, with a statutory system of notification and self certification of compliance by applicants, differs from that in England and Wales where planning authorities have statutory responsibility to give publicity to planning applications and have wide powers of discretion to determine the appropriate methods of publicity in each case.
  • Practice in Scotland also differs from practice in Northern Ireland where the Department of the Environment, as planning authority, operates a non-statutory system in which it undertakes to notify neighbours on the basis of a certified list of notifiable interests supplied by the applicant.
  • Procedures may be overly complex.
  • Despite improvements to and modifications of the procedures since their introduction, weaknesses remain.
Legal review
  • The relatively small number of court cases is unlikely to reflect the extent to which neighbour notification procedures are thought to be adequate.
  • The lack of a requirement for the description of the proposed development in the notice to neighbours to be consistent with the description on the planning application creates scope for error or abuse.
Review of complaints
  • Complaints against planning authorities are increasing (195 in 1993-94, 165 in 1992-93) and almost half of these (48%) relate to neighbour issues.
  • The single most common complaint relates to the question of renotification of neighbours where amended or revised plans are submitted by the applicant.
  • Other major sources of complaint are: failure to carry out notification and lack of proof of service or receipt of notices; inaccurate or misleading descriptions of proposed developments contained in neighbour notices.
Case studies
From the interviews with planning officers, applicants and neighbours it was found that:
  • there is general support for neighbour notification amongst those involved in the process.
  • neighbours want more information and to be kept informed by planning authorities of changes in development proposals and how their representations are being dealt with.
  • neighbours found planning authorities generally unhelpful, but planning officers thought that they were providing a good service.
  • for applicants, the main problem was collecting accurate information to identify notifiable neighbours.
  • there was general concern that the Notice of neighbour notification was deficient and needed to be made more understandable and provide more information.
  • neighbours tend to accept notices at face value without inspecting the plans.
  • neighbours regularly encounter difficulties in gaining access to places where plans are held, at times that are convenient for them.
  • the period for making representations is open to varying interpretations. Some planning authorities regard the statutory 14 day period as the period for lodging objections and do not accept them after this. Others regard it as being the period within which the application cannot be determined. There is also concern about when the 14 day period begins.
  • everyone wants the system "simplified".
  • planning officers consider that the definition of neighbours was clear but there was wide discretion applied in its interpretation.
  • there was general agreement that there should be proof of service of notices but views varied as to how this should be achieved.
  • there is no common practice among planning authorities about when renotification of neighbours was appropriate. Renotification tends to hinge on whether alterations to a planning application involve "material" changes. This tends to be determined by the professional judgement of the planning officer. Neighbours are unhappy about this situation.
  • neighbours want more guidance about legitimate grounds for objection. Planning officers are wary of "encouraging" objections or of "putting words into people's mouths", preferring that it should be left to neighbours to establish for themselves to what extent and in what ways they might be affected.
Strengths and weaknesses of current procedures
The review identified the following principal strengths of neighbour notification:-
  • it raises awareness among neighbours of development proposals which may affect them
  • it can bring the attention of planning authorities to information which may be material to a planning application
  • it is a relatively simple, well-established system understood by planning authorities and regular applicants
  • its principles are widely supported by planning authorities, applicants and neighbours.
The principal weaknesses were identified as follows:-
  • the scope for error and abuse in undertaking notification procedures
  • the lack of a requirement to demonstrate proof of notification
  • the scope in the current system for neighbours to misunderstand the terms and purpose of the notice of neighbour notification
  • the variations in practice by planning authorities in interpreting notification requirements and in advising applicants and neighbours
  • the complexity of current requirements
  • the lack of flexibility in relating notification to the circumstances of the planning application
  • the lack of up to date information on which to base notification.
Safeguarding the strengths whilst at the same time removing the perceived weaknesses and structural flaws in these arrangements was recognised by the research team as being the central focus for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of neighbour notification in Scotland.
Conclusions and recommendations
The main finding from the survey is that the principles of neighbour notification are widely supported. However a simplification of procedures is needed. The key requirement of the study recommendations is seen as being to maximise the effectiveness of notification procedures whilst not significantly increasing costs to planning authorities or applicants, and reducing burdens on both as far as possible, whilst ensuring understandable and fair procedures.
The recommendations focus on priorities of:
  • improving the effectiveness of neighbour notification by either increasing requirements on applicants or transferring responsibility for notification to planning authorities;
  • simplifying the definitions of neighbouring land and notifiable interest;
  • providing flexibility in permitting planning authorities to widen notification as appropriate;
  • achieving "best proof" of neighbour notification by requiring recorded delivery of Notices;
  • making the location plan accompanying the application and the Notice more accurate and useful;
  • extending the period for making written representations from 14 to 21 days;
  • requiring renotification of neighbours where significant changes are made to planning applications;
  • extending neighbour notification to more categories of development;
  • improving public understanding of neighbour notification and clarifying the rights of neighbours;
  • promoting good practice by planning authorities in publicising planning applications and in providing public access to information they hold about land and property.
"Review of Neighbour Notification", the research report summarised in this Research Findings, may be purchased (price £5 per copy).
Cheques should be made payable to The Stationery Office Books and addressed to:
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The report can also be ordered online from:www.thestationeryoffice.co.uk

Further copies of this Research Findings may be obtained from:
The Scottish Office Central Research Unit
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Edinburgh EH1 3TG
Telephone 0131-244 4384