North York Moors National Park Authority backs controversial scheme

North York Moors. Picture by Gary Longbottom
North York Moors. Picture by Gary Longbottom

The chairman of the North York Moors National Park Authority has said it will “probably” reintroduce a scheme which charges residents for planning enforcement action in spite of a damning report by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO).

Jim Bailey said today he was “surprised and disappointed” by the findings from the ombudsman which said the authority had relied upon “inconclusive legal opinion” when, in 2014, it introduced a charge to recover some costs when taking enforcement action in planning matters.

A couple complained to the ombudsman that the national park had charged them for enforcing a planning notice.

The ombudsman’s investigation has found the park at fault for the way it made the decision to introduce the charge. It also found that no relevant case law had been presented.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said: “In making policy decisions authorities should show a level of evidence reflecting the importance of the issue, and I would expect it to be meticulous for a decision as contentious as charging for planning enforcement.

“In this case, North York Moors National Park Authority’s decision was based on an inconclusive legal opinion and did not take into account all the relevant factors.

“I would expect a decision of this nature to receive thorough scrutiny. But the full implications of the authority’s proposal were not properly communicated to members, so it is questionable how informed their decision making could have been.

“We are also concerned the authority’s rationale for the decision shifted over time – rather than a robust, risk-based decision it appears it sought to justify a desired policy objective on limited and uncertain grounds.”

The national park authority suspended the policy following the start of the ombudsman’s investigation, however, Mr Bailey defended the decision.

He said: “The members are surprised and disappointed at these findings in view of the evidence provided to the LGO.

“They believe they have sufficiently considered the legal basis of the scheme, including advice of a local authority barrister and specialist QC, through a process of public reports to members in December 2014 and December 2015, and the usual range of discussions with officers as part of that process, and therefore had sufficient information to reach the decisions they did.”

He said no money was ever taken from the couple but admitted the authority knew they policy came with “some legal uncertainties”.

He added: “Do we intend to re-introduce the cost recovery scheme? Probably, yes.

“The adoption and running of the scheme brought significant public benefit and the LGO does not conclude that the scheme was unlawful, but recommends the steps that need to be taken should the authority seek to reintroduce such a scheme.”

The LGO has told the national park it should apologise to the couple. People who paid money under the policy have been refunded.