Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Surveillance, Social Control and Planning: Citizen-Engagement in the Detection and Investigation of Breaches of Planning Regulations

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Surveillance, Social Control and Planning: Citizen-Engagement in the Detection and Investigation of Breaches of Planning Regulations

Article excerpt

Regulatory controls and their enforcement - including planning controls over the built environment - depend on a capacity to detect and monitor breaches or infringements of regulations. The article uses concepts derived from surveillance studies literature to explore the mechanisms by which breaches of planning controls are initially detected and subsequently investigated. The specific focus of the article is on how the public are engaged in the enforcement of planning controls, particularly in reporting breaches as complainants and carrying out ongoing surveillance of sites as informants. The empirical material presented in the article is based on structured interviews with planning enforcement officers in England.

Keywords: surveillance, social control, planning, development control, enforcement

Enforcing planning regulations

This article explores the investigative aspects of planning enforcement. It is inspired by cases in England where substantial developments have evaded the public gaze and the detection of regulatory authorities. There is limited understanding of this 'surveillance stage of enforcement' (McKay et al., 2003, 331) as investigative practices are often non-statutory and informal. They exhibit characteristics of 'street-level bureaucracy' (Lipsky, 1980) and depend on the customs and practices of individual local planning authorities or officers. This article investigates these practices and contributes to the literature on facilitating compliance with planning regulations (Burbyet al., 1998; Prior, 2000; McKay and Ellis, 2005; McKay, 2007; Lai et al., 2007). It recognises that non-statutory, investigative practices are as much a part of a strategic and tactical approach to planning enforcement as the use of formal instruments (Prior, 2000, 65; Millichap, 1995). The article uses surveillance studies literature as a framework for exploring the public's role in supporting the enforcement of planning controls. The main sections of the article explore the significant role that the public plays within a predominantly reactive system of planning enforcement. The account documents the processes available to the public to report suspected breaches of planning control, and highlights how citizens supplement the investigatory resources of local planning authorities. Key themes include anonymity versus disclosure of identity, the extent to which the public become active in initial and ongoing surveillance and informing, and the strategies that enforcement officers use to navigate the legislative restrictions on the use of investigative activities. The article then addresses selected questions on the politics and emotions of surveillance and counter-surveillance.

The planning enforcement system in England

The planning system in England regulates the use and development of land in the public interest. The system is distinguished from many other planning systems by an indirect relationship between statutory development plans and individual decisions. Planning enforcement is based on a strong statute but retains opportunity for significant discretion to be exercised by decision-makers (Prior, 2000; McKay et al., 2003, 329; Harris, 2010). Planning enforcement is 'plan-led', yet the generalised character of statutory plans as well as the complexity of the legislation and case law mean that it is not always clear that a breach of planning control has occurred or that it is 'expedient' to enforce. Similarly, a decision whether to enforce is based on interpretation of development plan policies balanced against site-specific factors and 'other material considerations'. Planning enforcement is therefore a discretionary 'political' activity, rather than a simple 'technical' or administrative exercise. This creates a reactive and responsive framework rather than one based on systematic identification and address of breaches.

The system is administered principally by local planning authorities that determine their own enforcement priorities and strategies. …

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