Speaking yesterday at the Communities and Local Government select committee hearing on the operation of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), Simon Ridley defended Boles’ intervention in the examination of Reigate and Banstead Borough Council's core strategy.
The plan had passed examination and was poised for adoption, but its allowance of green belt release in case of a shortfall of housing sites had sparked local opposition, spearheaded by Reigate's Tory MP, Crispin Blunt.
One of the modifications that inspector Martin Pike had proposed was that the Tory-controlled authority should "recognise that some loss of green belt to housing development will be necessary".
Boles wrote to the head of PINS to say he was "disturbed" by the inspector's language in the report on the release of green belt land for housing which, Boles said, "invited misinterpretation of government policy".
Asked if the situation had called into question the impartiality of PINS, Ridley said: "I think the Reigate and Bansted situation was around a local plan and a recommendation made by the inspector to the council about the nature and content and direction of its plan which involved green belt and was obviously of ministerial interest.
"There was an exchange of correspondence which was helpful, I think, in resolving the relationship between the minister and the inspectorate [and] the inspector, and eventually resulted in a local planning authority actually adopting the recommendation of the inspector.
"So I think it was a helpful exchange of correspondence and I think it is the minister’s prerogative to intervene in situations that he feels that he might want to".
Also speaking at the committee session, Ben Linscott, acting chief planning inspector at the Planning Inspectorate, played down the recent interventions by the communities secretary in appeals cases involving renewable energy schemes.
Asked if the increased intervention "undermines you as an organisation" and makes PINS look "irrelevant", Linscott said: "I think it’s really important that when we talk about recovered appeals to be clear about two different things. The first is that all appeal decisions are actually delegated from the secretary of state to an inspector to make the decision in the first place and it is an established part of the system that secretaries of state can recover appeals for different reasons whether it is about insuring the application of policy or whether it is about appeals which are about issues which are wider than just the local area.
"We have seen over many years appeals get recovered. It’s fewer than one per cent of the total appeals PINS looks at, under 100 in any year, typically, compared to 20,000 that we deal with.
"Secondly, in the majority of cases the secretary of state is making the same decision as the recommendation the inspector provided. In the cases where that doesn’t happen, the reasons are set out and of course in any appeal, two different views are being put forward, it is a matter of judgement on the evidence, as to the weight given to various considerations in policy of more broadly and I think it’s unsurprising that some of these cases the secretary of state and the inspector may take a different.
"I think we continue to be integral to the way the planning system works and ensuring that the right to appeal is heard and impartial and fair judgements can be come to".
Linscott also defended PINS against accusations that many appeals decisions were inconsistent with previous decisions.
He said: "I would not regard different decisions as necessarily inconsistent. Even within the same local authority area because the circumstances are different sites will differ. The policies which apply to particular sites will differ and, most importantly, each appeal ... is effectively a tribunal in its own right, so it’s the evidence that is presented to that tribunal that the inspector must apply".