Epping Council to usher in planning changes in face of ‘significant’ special measure risk

Epping Forest is looking to bring in changes to the way it decides planning applications in the face of the “significant risk” it may be put into special measures.

Among the changes is that the number of planning committees – currently three – could be reduced to just one.

The risk of special measures comes because of the number of major applications that have been won at appeal.

The maximum percentage of major applications overturned at appeal that the Government considers acceptable is 10 per cent. Epping Forest District Council narrowly avoided the threat of designation with 9.8 per cent of major decisions overturned at appeal following decisions made between April 2021 and March 2023.

The council is also concerned about the effect of the government reducing planning guarantee for non-major applications – where if a council does not make a decision the applicant can ask for its planning fee back.

Failure to meet the quality of major applications target puts the council at risk of designation, officers have warned.

Where an authority is designated, applicants may apply directly to the Planning Inspectorate. In so doing the planning authority would not receive any of the planning fees for the application, however, a similar level of work would be required by Epping in advising the Planning Inspectorate.

The Planning Advisory Service (PAS) has made seven recommendations to improve the council’s planning outcomes – including reducing the number of committees to preferably one, but a maximum of two with between nine and 12 Members on any one committee.

In addition, only items that require scrutiny in public should be considered by the committee and a new set of protocols for the new committee arrangements.

It also recommends a legal officer should be present at all committee meetings and that performance reports are regularly published as well as extra training for both officers and members.

Principal Planner Graham Courtney said at a cabinet meeting on May 28: “Given the threat of special measures on the quality of major applications, plus the government has reduced the planning guarantee for non-major application, the council do have to review the committee process and the delegated authority in line with the PAS report.

“Failure to make the necessary changes will put the council at significant risk.”

Councillor Rose Brookes said: “I would support the idea of two committees as long as there is still the provision for ward members to bring something for consideration.”

The changes could be agreed by full council in August.

Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter