Greater Manchester town council found to have acted 'unlawfully' for a decade
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Bolton Council has admitted its planning department has been acting unlawfully for more than 10 years by not refunding planning fees on delayed applications. The revelation means the council is now liable to repay those whose planning applications were not resolved within 26 weeks, dating back to October 2013, when legislation was introduced.
It is understood the authority faces paying refunds to hundreds of individuals and developers and is looking at a financial outlay ‘in six figures’ to set things right. The council said the issue became apparent earlier this year when a member of the public requested a refund of fees after a delays to an application.
Under the government’s planning guarantee, fees must be refunded to planning applicants where no decision has been made within 26 weeks, unless a longer period has been agreed. Bolton Council leader Nick Peel said he believed that Bolton is not the only local authority in the country not complying with the law and they too could face huge bills for unpaid refunds.
The council said the vast majority of applications are resolved within the 26-week period but said an urgent historical audit was being conducted to find out how many planning applicants in Bolton were not refunded as per the law.
Bolton Council’s chief executive, Sue Johnson, said: “It’s come to light that we have some processing issues in our planning department. Planning legislation states that after 26 weeks we have to refund the applicant unless it has been agreed that it can take longer. This has not been happening.”
Council leader Nick Peel, said: “The information has come to light that the council hasn’t been behaving in a lawful manner. “We’ve taken third party counsel on this which conformed we are obliged to take all reasonable steps to ensure entitled people are refunded.
“At the moment we don’t know how many people are affected and in terms of cost to the council we don’t know but we are looking in the region of more than £100,000. “This came to my attention at the end of May via a member of the public and I passed it on to the borough solicitor.
“As far as I’m aware no elected members have previously been informed that there was an issue in the planning department.” Cllr Peel said he understood that the council was only obliged to go back six years to refund people but he thought it was ‘morally the right thing’ to go back the full 10 years.
“If we know we owe people money it’s the right thing to do,” he said. Bolton Council’s website states that planning fees for residential homes are £206 for alterations and extensions to a single home.
Similar plans for two or more homes or flats incur a fee of £407. For major developments of 50 or fewer new homes the planning fee is £462 for each home and for more than 50 new homes there is a £22,859 flat fee plus £138 for each new home.
Cllr Peel, added: “I want to know how this happened, why it happened and who was responsible for this and what was the action taken once I brought it to people’s attention.” The council has also admitted that they were incorrect in stating on their website that they would only accept planning applications through their internal, online planning portal. for which there is an additional charge.
Ms Johnson, said: “The legislation says you can receive an application in any manner. “For example where applicants have said ‘can we email it’, we’ve been incorrectly saying no, you’ve got to use the portal.
“That has now been corrected.” The refund matter could now be an issue for any other non-compliant councils up and down the country.
Ms Johnson said she had spoken to the Local Government Association (LGA) to raise this issue. She said the LGA would be sharing Bolton’s experience with other councils for them to check if they are affected. Cllr Peel, added: “It’s almost implausible that this issue is restricted to just Bolton.”
The council said they had now refunded those who had requested one and were in the process of identifying those who were maybe unaware they were owed the money by the council in order to pay back the planning fees.