Planning appeals: Researching local authority legal costs

How much do local authorities spend opposing planning applications?

A Freedom of Information (FOI) exercise undertaken by the Home Builders Federation has found that more than £50 million of taxpayer money was spent on legal advice for planning appeals over the past three years.

The money comprises spending by individual councils and by the Planning Inspectorate, an executive agency of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

The FOI results also reveal that 50% of appeals involving dwellings over the three years were allowed by the Planning Inspectorate.

Local authority spending

£45,000 a year

is the average annual local authority bill for legal costs related to planning appeals

20% of councils

spent more than double the national average each year fighting planning applications from 2020 to 2023

Top 10 councils

spent £5million a year over the three-year period surveyed

A breakdown of council legal costs

The data finds that each individual local council spent an average of £45,000 a year on legal advice relating to planning appeals between 2020/21 and 2022/23, amounting to a national total of £15 million a year. However, the costs vary greatly from council to council, with some authorities spending significantly more:

  • A fifth of councils spent more than double the national average each year
  • Over the three-year period surveyed, the top 10 councils alone spent £5 million.
  • Medway Council spent the most among respondents, with a total of £680,000 over the three years.

The increased politicisation of the local plan process can be seen playing out, with nine of the ten biggest spenders located in the South East or East of England, areas where development has become increasingly controversial despite also facing the greatest demand and the most stretched affordability.

The impact of this approach is already impacting local housing supply. Across councils spending the most on legal advice for planning appeals, the majority saw notable decreases in annual housing delivery between the year preceding this FOI (2019/20) and 2022/23. Kingston Upon Thames saw the highest decrease, with net additions in 2022/23 down 53% on 2019/20. Uttlesford was down by 41%, Basingstoke and Deane by 38% and Swale by 23%.

Looking to future supply, London, the South East and East of England, the regions that have the highest spending on legal advice, and these regions have all seen large falls in new planning permissions and housing completions over recent months and years. In the year to September 2023, London, the South East and East of England saw decreases of 20%, 6% and 17% in the number of units granted planning permission as compared to the previous 12-month period. Meanwhile, housing supply statistics published in January 2024 recorded annual falls in these regions of between 8 and 14%.

Even in just the three years surveyed here, average annual spend per council increased by 146% between 2020/21 and 2022/23 as anti-development rhetoric at a national level has given greater scope to those looking to oppose new development in their area. Some councils have seen spending increase by significantly more, including the local authority covering the Housing Secretary, Michael Gove’s, own local council – Surrey Heath. The council spent £160,000 across 2021/22 and 2022/23.

Planning Inspectorate decisions

An additional FOI request sent to the Planning Inspectorate found that a further £5.6 million was spent by the agency on legal advice over the three-year period.

The Planning Inspectorate deals with planning appeals, national infrastructure planning applications, examinations of local plans and other planning-related and specialist casework in England. Appeals can go to the Planning Inspectorate if an application is refused, if an application takes more than the eight-to-13-week timeline, or if there is a disagreement over planning conditions.

The agency has stated that there has been a significant increase in the number of appeals being received that require a hearing, due to an increase in the number of major housing appeals being received.

The data received from the Planning Inspectorate revealed that, over the three years, 155,000 dwellings were involved in appeals received by the agency. Of these, 73,000 dwellings were allowed. This means that in almost 50% of cases, the Inspector’s decision permitted a development where the original decision from the local authority did not, and 73,000 dwellings that would otherwise not have been built despite the Planning Inspectorate ultimately finding the proposals to be appropriate and in keeping with relevant local policies.

The impact on housing supply

With fewer councils adopting plans or able to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply, the rate of appeals and therefore spending on legal advice relating to appeals, has increased significantly. Planning departments have long faced resource and funding shortages, and so it is concerning that increasingly large amounts of money could be being wasted on processes for unnecessary appeals due to a growing anti-development sentiment in large swathes of the country. Even where councils have adopted a local plan, the rhetoric from Government over the past 12 months has only given licence to those looking to oppose new development in their area.

This FOI follows research from Planning Magazine, which finds that councils are paying out huge sums in cost awards to developers, as a result of “unreasonable” behaviour, often driven by local politics.

Towards the end of the 2023, Gove confirmed that housing targets will be made advisory, with councils able to diverge away from the standard method if they are able to justify a ‘sensitive adjustment’. The impact of this on housing supply will be stark. HBF’s Planning for Economic Failure report predicted the NPPF changes could see housing delivery drop by 77,000 a year.

The latest data on net additions to the housing stock shows that housing supply is already stagnating, and HBF’s data on the pipeline of planning permissions being approved indicates that housing supply will drop to record lows in the coming years, with approved units falling to even lower levels than those in the wake of the Global Financial Crash.

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