Planning enforcement needs to improve radically

The figures revealed today by the News Letter on planning law enforcement make alarming reading.

An overwhelming majority of serious breaches of planning escape prosecution.

The exact rate of prosecution is hard to summarise, because some of the outstanding cases since 2009 could still be in the pipelines.

But as a snapshot, in the earliest year for which the News Letter has data, 2010, only 3% of 1,670 violations have been prosecuted.

Another finding is that a tiny number of breaches across the province, 17 in six years, have resulted in fines of more than £1,000.

Marcus Patton, chair of the Department of Communities’ Historic Buildings Council, is obviously correct to say that a few well-publicised victories are needed to act as deterrents.

But this is not even close to happening. The overall data suggests a pitiable rate of enforcement follow-through. But it also points to utterly inadequate penalties for the tiny fraction of cases that do result in prosecution.

This is an insult to the thousands of honest people every year, sometimes of modest means, who pay money to the planning authorities to have an application for an amendment to a planning consent, or an extension to their home or for a new retirement dwelling, and who patiently wait the outcome of their bid.

If it is unsuccessful, these law-abiding applicants either have to abandon or alter their plans. If it is approved, they go ahead and build within the limits of the approval.

Yet now they read, in the News Letter, what many people have long suspected to be the case: that they should barely have bothered.

Enforcement needs to improve radically, both in terms of the rate of prosecutions and the level of penalty.