In a letter to the inspectorate before Christmas, the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames had complained that it was "particularly aggrieved" by the apparent lack of "any logic" determining why inspectors came to differing views on whether a local policy seeking developer contributions for affordable housing from small developers could be overridden by a 2014 written ministerial statement (WMS).
In its response to the London borough’s letter, PINS accepted that inspectors had made "errors in approach and judgement" in two appeal decisions, in which inspectors had afforded considerably lesser weight to local policies because they are now, in part, inconsistent with national planning policy.
The letter from PINS said that it considered the approach taken by inspectors in three other decisions to be reasonable.
The correspondence followed a Court of Appeal decision last May, which backed the 2014 WMS. The WMS had stipulated that affordable housing contributions should not be sought on schemes comprising fewer than ten units or less than 1,000 square metres of floorspace.
In its reply to the council, PINS said that an approach in which considerably lesser weight is afforded to relevant local policies before they are now, in part, inconsistent with national planning policy, "is arguably not an appropriate one, as the effect of the WMS was not to reduce the weight that should be given to the statutory development plan, or automatically to outweigh relevant development plan policies".
The letter said that the WMS "comes into play as a material consideration which post-dates the plan, and which has to be balanced against the plan and the evidence base supporting the local planning authority's application of the policy".
It added: "The decision maker therefore has discretion in applying his or her judgement as to where the balance should lie, drawing on the evidence presented."
The letter said that PINS fully accepted "that there are errors in approach and judgment" in two appeal decisions and offered "sincere apologies ... for the flaws in these decisions and for an consequent frustration or inconvenience that this may have caused".
The letter added: "The inspectors concerned and their respective managers will be informed that your complaints have been upheld and, going forward with the wider picture in mind, our internal inspector guidance is already in the process of being updated and strengthened as a direct result of your feedback."
In a statement, Richmond Council said: "We welcome PINS' thorough and considered response on what we feel has been a frustrating matter, particularly because two awards of costs have been made against the council.
"We have always considered the WMS to be a material consideration but that it would not outweigh the significant and substantial weight that should be attached to local evidence and policies.
"We are pleased that there is now some clarity as to the effect of the WMS, which is not to reduce or automatically outweigh the weight that should be given to the statutory development plan. We are also pleased that PINS will be updating their internal inspector guidance to ensure that such errors and flaws in decisions do not occur again."
In a statement, PINS said: "We always welcome feedback on our processes and the quality of our decisions. We are updating our internal Inspector guidance as a result of this feedback."
PINS’ letter to the London Borough of Richmond can be found here.