Fairness is the first priority for appeals

For the planning profession, the most important announcement in the chancellor's autumn statement was the promised review of the appeals system.

Richard Garlick: "To be fair-minded, the appeal mustn't begin with unjust assumptions" alancleaver_2000 photo
Richard Garlick: "To be fair-minded, the appeal mustn't begin with unjust assumptions" alancleaver_2000 photo

Details of the terms of the review are as yet pretty sketchy, but George Osborne explained it by saying that he wanted to make the process "faster and more transparent, improve consistency and increase certainty of decision timescales" as part of his wider drive to "remove the lengthy delays and high costs" of the existing planning system.

Taking a fresh look at the appeals process with a view to improving it is perfectly sensible. The government hasn't yet disclosed much about its ideas for reforms, beyond making more use of electronic communications to speed up the sharing of documents between parties. But former Planning Inspectorate (PINS) deputy chief executive Leonora Rozee responded to the chancellor's statement by acknowledging that there was potential for streamlining the system. And chief planning inspector-in-waiting Peter Burley, in an interview conducted before the review was announced (see p18), also identified potential for beneficial change, although his suggestions at that stage largely involved participants making better use of the existing system.

But if the review is going to be fair-minded, it is important that it does not begin with any unjust presumptions about the existing appeal process. For the statistics suggest a system that is both working well and improving. Last year the inspectorate met all government targets relating to timeliness of appeal handling. The average time taken to decide appeals has dropped from 29 to 17 weeks for hearings, and 34 to 31 weeks for inquiries, in the last two years. Even more importantly, the inspectorate last year met its target for 99 per cent of its decisions to be free of justified complaints.

To be fair, Osborne did not trash the current procedures, but merely said that he wanted to investigate whether they could be bettered. He has, however, set a very tight timetable for the review, promising that "proposals will be brought forward for implementation" in summer 2012. If that means that the government hopes to enact the changes next summer, rather than simply consult on them, then it is leaving very little time for the comment and feedback that they will undoubtedly need.

The chancellor also needs to bear in mind that he is seeking to speed up the system at the same time as the inspectorate's resources are being cut. PINS and the Infrastructure Planning Commission, with which it will soon be merged, are planning to cut staff numbers from 680 to 600 by 2014. All of this will be going on in an era of radical planning change, which Burley predicts will see appeal numbers rise "for some time" after the adoption of the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework.

Of course, it may be that efficiencies can be found that will allow speed to be increased at the same time as resources are reduced. The critical thing is that the integrity and fairness of the process is not impaired, and that the 99 per cent figure for flaw-free appeals is not endangered.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning//richard.garlick@haymarket.com.

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