Best practice in officer report writing

The essentials – what should an officer report include?

The decision-making Planning Authority must give written notice of a planning application decision in accordance with Section 35 of the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015. The legislation does not require this notice to include an officer report. However, in most cases, the Planning Authority will include a form of officer report as this is the easiest way to demonstrate that it has properly considered all the relevant material planning matters, met its statutory requirements, and has made a sound and defendable decision. As a minimum, the officer report will include the following information:

  • Application reference
  • Applicant details
  • Proposal
  • Site address
  • Site description
  • Relevant planning history
  • Relevant policies
  • Site constraints
  • Public representations received (number of representations and summary of material issues raised)
  • Consultation responses
  • Analysis of the issues and planning balance
  • Recommendation
  • Conditions/reasons for refusal
  • Relevant informatives

Best Practice

Each Council will have its own officer report format that is adapted to fit within the Council's own constitutional requirements, accessibility standards and stylistic preferences. However, as well as the essentials outlined above, we have outlined some best practice suggestions below based on a review of different officer reports written across the country and feedback from officers from within those councils.

Straight forward Delegated Reports

It is important that officers take a proportionate approach to officer reports.  Local authority Planning Officers are very busy people and it is not reasonable or appropriate for officers to write long detailed reports for every decision.  If a case officer is considering a non-contentious householder application with no objections and no amendments needed, it is unlikely that the report will even be read by the applicant so it is a poor use of time and resources to write a detailed report. Instead, some councils use tick box reports to help speed up decision-making and make better use of resources. 

Outlined below is a template officer report that can be used for very straightforward applications (special thanks to Teignbridge District Council for the use of their text)

Differences between delegated and Planning Committee reports

The key difference between a Planning Committee officer report and a delegated officer report is that the report needs to be clearly understood by the members of the Planning Committee and all interested parties who will be interested in the decision that the Planning Committee makes. The actual content of the report and thought process made by officers should be the same regardless of whether it is a committee or delegated decision. Still, the way the information is presented may differ because a Planning Committee report is more likely to be read by a wider audience than a delegated report. Below are some suggestions you should consider when writing a Planning Committee report.

Acceptable “errors”

Planning decisions can be challenged through the appeals process, formal complaints, or judicial review process. When the Local Government Ombudsman is investigating a complaint regarding a planning matter, evidence is sought to demonstrate that the decisions were properly made and due process followed rather than simply used to facilitate the decision.

The courts have made it clear that case officer reports:

  • Do not need to include every possible planning consideration, but just the
    principal controversial issues;
  • Do not need to be perfect, as their intended audience are the parties to the
    application (the Council and the applicant) who are well versed of the issues;
  • Should not be subject to hypercritical scrutiny, and do not merit challenge
    unless their overall effect is to significantly mislead the decision-maker on the
    key, material issues 

Source Local Government Ombudsman Leeds City Council (22 013 160)

Below are some points to reassure officers that some errors have been considered acceptable through the legal process.

  • Reports do not merit challenge unless their overall effect is to "significantly mislead" the decision-maker on material matters. Officers may misinterpret a consultee’s view or misinterpret a policy, but this misinterpretation must be significant to lead to a successful challenge Pagham Parish Council v Arun District Council; Date: 4 July 2019; Ref: [2019] EWHC 1721 (Admin).
  • Lack of consultation does not automatically mean decisions to approve controversial applications will be quashed provided that there is no error in law in the assessment of an officer’s impact (see R (Broad) v Rochford District Council; Date: 21 March 2019; Ref: [2019] EWHC 628 (Admin)
    1. The source of the above 2 cases was an article in Planning Resource 5 September 2019 by Bryan Johnston.
  • Poor spelling, grammar and punctuation look unprofessional. It can give a negative impression to interested parties. Still, it will only impact the ability to defend a decision if it results in a different interpretation of the officer's argument.
  • A report should be read as a whole and will only be successfully challenged if an officer has materially misled the decision maker or has not corrected the error if it became apparent before the decision was made.
    1. Source: Zack Simons The basics #8 - planning officers in the dock, #Planoraks 7/9/20

PAS would like to thank the following Councils who contributed to preparing this guidance:

Brighton and Hove City Council

Camden Council

Greater Cambridgeshire Shared Planning Service
Leeds City Council

Maidstone Borough Council 

Northumberland Council

Plymouth City Council

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea 

St Albans and City and District Council

Sefton Council

Sheffield City Council

South Gloucestershire Council

Teignbridge District Council