Published: 06:00, 11 September 2021
A council left red-faced after a junior official accidentally published 'dummy' planning application decisions has suffered a similar error before, it has emerged.
It comes as Swale council warns it will take legal action against developers who try to exploit the most recent blunder and start work on projects mistakenly given approval, including the demolition of a prominent 1860s Sheppey pub.
In 2019, the authority overturned another planning permission, issued in error, in the High Court.
The decision related to an application for more time to carry out remedial work required as a condition of a temporary planning permission on a traveller site near Hartlip, Sittingbourne.
The council's committee had previously turned down the application, but a subsequent decision notice mistakenly stated the application had been approved.
It meant the decision had become legally binding and prompted the council to apply for the order in court.
At the time, a council spokesman said: "Unfortunately, the refusal decision notice was mistakenly entered onto an approval letter template and the error was missed when being checked before sending.
"The mistake was bought to our attention by a local resident in June, and we took the necessary steps to reverse our mistake.
"To reverse the decision, we must take action against ourselves in the high court with the council leader as the figure head, as established in case law. This is standard practice when a planning mistake has been made.
"Notice of decision mistakes are not unusual in local authorities, but thankfully very rare at Swale council."
He added that the correct decision notice would be issued to the applicant.
Referring to the earlier error, Cllr James Hunt (Con) said: "Whilst said to be common, I have not known any other authority to be in this position and I have not known it to happen at Swale since before 2019. Make of that what you will."
The most recent blunder left council officials red-faced after a junior staff member was unwittingly let loose on approving and rejecting planning notices, with one applicant, a charity boss, told their scheme was turned down because: “Your proposal is whack”.
It came about when the Mid Kent Planning Support team, which handles the online submissions on behalf of Swale council, was trying to resolve software issues.
In doing so, five ‘dummy’ decisions, used to test the website was working, were accidentally published and making good the mistaken planning decisions is set to cost £8,000.
Among them was the sarcastic refusal to a desperate bid by Happy Pants animal sanctuary to stay on its site in Bobbing, near Sittingbourne. Terry Rowse butchers’ change of use to a takeaway in Chaucer Road, Sittingbourne, was also turned down, with the official comments reading simply “no”, and “just don’t”.
However, the other three applications were granted including the partial demolition of The Wheatsheaf pub in Sittingbourne's East Street and the demolition of the Old House At Home pub in Sheerness High Street, to make way for flats.
Cllr Cameron Beart, who represents Queenborough and Halfway on Swale council, said he was "absolutely horrified" to see a pub demolition being granted planning permission, albeit in error.
He said that if it had been approved "without any consideration and without any conditions attached, it is a serious issue".
But Swale council, which is now seeking to quash the five 'dummy' decisions, said it would consider taking legal action against any applicant who acts on the ruling while the errors are being rectified.
A spokesman said: "We have been in contact with applicants to explain that this is a genuine mistake and that action is being taken to have the decisions quashed and a proper decision issued.
"In telling them that we are seeking to have the decisions quashed we have put them on notice, and once the decision is quashed we will revert to a position of there being no planning decision on the application.
"Should any applicant act in the interim on what they know to be an error, the council would consider legal action to halt any development, including application for an interim injunction, until such time that its application to have the decision quashed is considered by the court."
On the previous error, the authority said: "The judicial review in 2019 was necessary due to a mistake when checking the document management system prior to a decision being published, and was not due to the Mid Kent Planning Support Service.
"Following this error, the process for publishing decisions was updated to prevent it happening again.”