After nine years in abeyance, the role of chief planning inspector for England and Wales has been revived. The appointment is part of a major shake-up at the government agency responsible for deciding a mix of appeals against official decisions and testing the merits of an equally varied range of planning strategies.
Under the leadership of Sir Michael Pitt, who succeeded Katrine Sporle as chief executive earlier this year, the Bristol-based Planning Inspectorate (PINS) is gearing up for next spring's merger with short-lived independent decision-making body the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC). The IPC will metamorphose into a major infrastructure planning unit within PINS, charged with advising ministers on nationally significant projects rather than deciding applications itself.
The inspectorate will also have to ready itself for the government's forthcoming review of the appeals process (see News Analysis, p5), which was announced after this interview took place.
Peter Burley, the first holder of the chief planning inspector title since Chris Shepley stepped down in 2002, formally takes up the post in April. Burley says that if he had a model for the role it would be Sporle's former deputy chief executive, Leonora Rozee, although her job was different. "Leonora was head of profession and had responsibility for policy and quality, but didn't line manage inspectors," he says. "My role will be to manage and develop our inspectors and ensure they continue to deliver a high quality service, as well as having broader responsibility for professionalism across the organisation."
Burley's credentials for the job seem impeccable. Since joining PINS in 1989, he has dealt with a huge range of casework, from planning and enforcement appeals to rights of way, tree preservation orders, advertisement consents, development plan inquiries and regional strategy examinations. As an assistant director since 2008, his managerial remit has covered environmental, renewable energy, water, waste and transport casework as well as information systems and workforce strategies.
As director of PINS Wales since April this year, he has been watching moves towards a more independent Welsh planning system with great interest. "We work very closely with the Welsh government to make sure we are in a position to deliver what it is looking for," he says. But he pauses when asked whether devolution might lead to an independent Welsh inspectorate in due course. "I don't get any feel for that at the moment," he replies.
One early task for managers at the "new PINS" will be to keep staff onside while cost reduction measures are pushed through. Pitt's merger plan calls for a full-time equivalent of 600 staff by 2014, against 680 currently. "I don't expect compulsory redundancies at this stage. We're aiming to develop a lean and flexible workforce," he says.
In the current year, he sees no signs of appeal intakes growing beyond the 17,737 cases received in 2010/11. But he accepts that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) will change the picture. "In the run-up to its adoption and for some time afterwards, we will see some increase in appeals, as people test the process. But the government's long-term aim is that the NPPF will simplify the system and reduce the propensity to appeal," he says. He declines to comment on whether this aspiration will be realised: "We'll have to wait for the final product and see what it achieves."
On many measures, PINS is doing a good job. The average determination time for inquiry appeals has dropped from 34 to 31 weeks over the past three years. In 2010/11, PINS decided 93 per cent of householder appeals within eight weeks, against a government target of 80 per cent. Latest results from customer surveys indicate that 99 per cent of participants in inquiries and hearings are satisfied or very satisfied with the way they are conducted.
Even in controversial appeal situations, he believes that fuller cooperation between parties can smooth the process. He would like to see participants make better use of statements of common ground to establish issues on which they agree at the outset, thus saving valuable inquiry time. "It's in everyone's interests to narrow down what needs to be dealt with, because inquiries are a cost to all involved," he argues. "One thing we are learning from the IPC is that the more you get parties engaged at an early stage, the better things run later on."
PINS's role is constantly developing into new kinds of casework. This year has seen the first examinations of councils' Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charges. "We found it interesting that challenges to their schedules were not informed by a lot of evidence," says Burley. "As frontrunners, the authorities had obviously done their homework. But the inspectors tell me that there just weren't the figures to support most objectors' arguments."
Looking further ahead, PINS services are set to develop in other areas, including examinations of marine plans and marine conservation zones. Burley says its involvement in neighbourhood plans is developing. "We are starting to look at how examinations might be done, but it is work in progress," he says. "Most councils are still looking at what it will take to get neighbourhood plans in place and I don't think community groups have thought too much yet about how their plans might be examined."
Whatever comes its way, Burley expects PINS to cope with new forms of examination without having to develop fundamentally new skills. "We have been giving inspectors handling CIL examinations some training in development economics, but that also applies to our local plan inspectors," he says. Burley anticipates that PINS will continue to be the main choice for CIL examinations, which do not legally need to be examined by a planning inspector. "We're not aware of councils going elsewhere to hire CIL examiners, which is recognition of the quality of our service. We would always be in a position to offer a good service if people choose us," he says.
But PINS is constantly looking for ways to improve performance, Burley insists. "We're always asking people: 'What do you really want from us?' It's much more of a two-way process, to give them the opportunity to influence the way we provide our services," he explains. "I don't think anyone would thank us if we tried to cut corners and ended up not providing the quality of service people expect."
1977: Graduates with a bachelor of philosophy in landscape design from Newcastle University following an MA in human sciences from the University of Oxford
1977: Joins Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council as landscape assistant, followed by planning posts at Swansea City, Ogwr Borough, Birmingham City and Rugby Borough Councils
1982: Gains town and country planning diploma from Bristol Polytechnic
1989: Joins PINS as an inspector
2008: Promoted to assistant director
2011: Appointed director for PINS Wales
2012: Due to become chief planning inspector for England and Wales.