At the Bristol headquarters of the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), evidence of the agency's drive to make more than £5 million of savings by 2020 is not hard to find. Rows of desks stand empty on a wing of the building's fourth floor, having been vacated by PINS staff only last month. Sarah Richards says that when she became PINS chief executive in March 2016, the inspectorate's staff worked across two floors of the building, which it shares with workers from other government agencies and departments. But since then, she adds, PINS has given up most of its space on Temple Quay House's fourth floor in a bid to cut accommodation costs, and now fits "almost entirely" on the third floor of the building.
Richards faces an unenviable task: she must deliver the savings required of PINS at the same time as turning around performance concerns identified in the body's latest annual report. Her job is made no easier by shifting ministerial priorities for the planning system, which can affect the inspectorate's workload overnight. And at the same time, looming on the horizon is perhaps its most high-profile task ever - processing the application for Heathrow's third runway, which will be determined under the nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) regime operated by PINS.
The government's austerity drive will see the inspectorate's total annual operating budget shrink from £40.4 million in 2015/16 to £34.7 million in 2019/20. Richards has identified a number of measures she believes can deliver the required savings. Reducing PINS' office footprint was "very simple stuff, and actually delivers big savings", she says, adding that a reduction in senior management staff, from more than 30 down to 16, will save a further £1 million. She also says PINS has introduced new systems and processes, which contribute to reducing costs.
It has lost back-office staff from Temple Quay House - the latest figures show the current PINS administration staff headcount for England at 343, down from 386 in May 2016 - but at the same time is increasing its workforce of inspectors, taking on 20 earlier this year. "This is the balancing act that we have: to reduce our overheads and fixed costs, but at the same time to maintain performance and quality, which is equally important to us," Richards says.
However, she points out that PINS is not entirely dependent on government funding. While the process for most planning applications - for now - carries no fee, the NSIP process for deciding major infrastructure projects does. What's more, all of PINS' local plan work is charged to local authorities, Richards says. The agency also does work for other departments, such as rights of way appeals for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, and Transport and Works Act inquiries for the Department for Transport, some of which has funding attached.
Meanwhile, a change introduced this month to the fee regime for NSIP projects will, for the first time, allow PINS to recover the full costs of processing such applications. However, the additional income generated by this will not come through immediately, Richards points out. Fees are "backloaded" in the NSIP regime, she says, with the bulk of the fees not paid upfront. "The impact on our budgets may not be felt until late next year."
Richards is also unsure about the impact on PINS' budget of a proposal contained in February's Housing White Paper, which if taken forward would allow the inspectorate to charge applicants a fee of up to £2,000 for making an appeal. Calculating the potential income is not as straightforward as "people multiplying our workload by a number they think might be the fee and coming up with an answer", Richards says. For a start, she points out, "there's a possibility of refunds where an appeal is allowed, so you would have to allow that against that income, because the proposal is that it might be paid by us". More significantly, she cautions that it is "unclear" whether PINS will keep any money from appeal charges.
PINS' last annual report, covering the financial year 2015/16, was published last June, not long after Richards took up the post of chief executive. The report revealed that the body had missed nearly all its casework targets in 2015/16 and that earlier concerns over casework performance had led to an internal review, which in 2015 found there had been a "governance failure".
Richards says that PINS is making strides in improving its performance in dealing with what she describes as "volume casework" covering written representations and householder appeals. Figures seen by Planning show that the proportion of appeals determined by the written representations method within 14 weeks rose from 41.6 per cent in 2015/16 to 68.7 per cent in 2016/17, while the proportion of householder appeals decided within eight weeks rose from 46.9 per cent to 59.8 per cent over the same period. These two categories account for the bulk of PINS' caseload. However, the figures for the same period also suggest that some more complex appeals - those requiring hearings and some types of inquiry - are taking longer to be processed, although PINS insists performance has improved in recent months.
According to Richards, the improvement in processing volume casework is being driven by a transformation in the way such work is dealt with. "There's a lot more electronic working going on," she says, adding that the way teams and inspectors are allocated to tasks has also changed, "all of which is contributing to a real improvement in our performance". She also says that PINS has "got much better" at regular recruitment of inspectors.
People have an "image of inspectors as being people who have been here forever", Richards says, but she reveals that "nearly 50 per cent of our inspector workforce has been here for less than four years". According to Richards, PINS is becoming more adept at shifting its inspector resource to match its workload: "We're becoming much more able to move skilled resource around and apply it to the task at hand than we have been in the past."
Nevertheless, board minutes show that at the end of 2016, PINS was concerned that, despite "numerous recruitment rounds, we have still not managed to recruit the number of inspectors required". The minutes show that "radical options" to close a "resource gap" were under consideration, including "using planning officers, outsourcing casework, negotiating targets and pay". Richards insists these proposals simply represent a "risk management exercise". "While we've got much better at forecasting our need for inspectors, I would never be complacent about it, and workload can change," she says. She concedes that "we considered where in the future we might get that resource from". But she adds that PINS is currently able to recruit the staff it requires - and such radical options are "not our intention".
Looming large in Richards' in-tray is the application for Heathrow Airport's third runway. PINS already has a project plan and a project board set up to deal with the NSIP application, and is working closely with the government to make sure the process is well managed, Richards says. She expects "very early tentative pre-application discussions this year, maybe". She says that the application has "all sorts of implications" for the inspectorate: "We've been considering everything from cyber-security and people wanting to hack into our website, through to the very practical stuff, such as who will be the five panel members that will sit on this." Richards accepts that "Heathrow is big, very big", but adds: "We've dealt with big and controversial, so we're not fazed by this. It's a challenge to rise to."
Two other tasks that could have significantly increased PINS' workload have failed to materialise. In November, the government announced that councils that were slow decision-makers on minor applications could be bypassed, with applicants given the option of applying to PINS instead. Previously, councils could only be penalised in this way for their performance on major applications. The change was flagged as a "risk to our resource" in PINS board minutes last year. "We've had to prepare ... for all of that, and then get skilled staff in place," Richards says. "And then of course, what's happened is that it's been decided not to designate any authorities" (Planning, 7 April, p5). Likewise, she says the government's threat to intervene where authorities had failed to produce a local plan by early 2017 "has fallen by the wayside a bit as well".
Those government pledges may not have been followed through, but other announcements have had an immediate impact on PINS' workload, such as the written ministerial statement (WMS) on neighbourhood planning issued in December. Richards points out that such announcements can increase inspectors' workload "overnight". "We've got local plan examinations in train where there'll be neighbourhood plans, we've got big appeals where this, overnight, is a material consideration," she says. "It's quite a challenge to lead an organisation and make sure we are ready and fleet of foot, but also to be prepared for things disappearing."
Practitioners have recently being paying close attention to inspectors' decisions for clarification on how another WMS - from 2014, exempting small sites from affordable housing contributions - should be interpreted. The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames complained to PINS in December that it was one of a number of local authorities to suffer inconsistent appeal decisions on the issue, following a Court of Appeal verdict reinstating the statement last summer. The inspectorate's reply to Richmond, which stated that the WMS does not automatically outweigh local policies, was seen by some observers as an important clarification. However, for Richards, the letter was merely a statement of policy. "PINS doesn't make policy. All we do is test it," she says. "That letter was just to set out what policy is ... and that reflects the current legal situation."
Richards says that a key priority for PINS, highlighted in its latest strategic plan, is to develop a greater customer focus. This could mean establishing new performance targets that better reflect the experience of appellants, and Amazon-style technology that will allow users to track where their appeal is in the system.
But she says that this increased customer focus could cut both ways. A new customer charter will, for the first time, set out what PINS expects of its customers. She says PINS is particularly keen to tackle the number of appeals it receives that are not accompanied by valid documentation. A quarter "are not valid when they come through our letterbox", Richards says. "You can imagine the cost and the resource use of fixing this stuff. That's definitely something we'll be coming back to."
2016 - Chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate
2013 - Strategic director of regeneration, housing and resources, Slough Borough Council
2009 - Director of sustainable environment, Essex County Council, with a year in 2012 as head of strategic commissioning
2005 - Head, Planning Advisory Service
2001 - Managing partner, Zurich Municipal Management Services
1997 - Director of planning, Test Valley Borough Council
1993 - Head of planning, Reading Borough Council
1986 - Senior planner, Newbury District Council
1981 - MPhil in urban planning, University College London