Letter: Planning Inspectorate will tackle its challenges

I refer to your article published on 28 March, 'Why new inspectorate data substantiates complaints about lengthening delays' and the subsequent letter from Richard Tamplin (see related articles, below).

The Planning Inspectorate's headquarters in Bristol
The Planning Inspectorate's headquarters in Bristol

There are many reasons for the delays in processing appeals, too many to explain fully in a comment for the story. I therefore thought it would be helpful to set out the challenges we currently face and our plans to meet them in this letter. I understand the frustration felt by our customers over the time it is taking to process what might appear to be relatively simple appeals. The current situation is shaped by a number of issues, some of which were predicted and some of which have recently appeared.

Our forecasting of future appeal workload is generally very accurate and therefore it will often be other matters that throw us off course. We are striving to process appeals swiftly and to ensure that we have enough inspectors in place to make the quality decisions required of us. One of the known challenges is recruiting the right number of inspectors.

This has been a consistent issue for the inspectorate over a number of years. Our recruitment of new inspectors is informed by assessments of workload and succession planning, which includes our experience of inspectors retiring, rather than dissatisfaction with pay and progression as has been suggested. We are currently undertaking the largest recruitment of inspectors, for which we received over 180 applications.

This large number of applications demonstrates clearly the appetite among planning and other professionals to work for the Planning Inspectorate as we aim to enhance our contribution to the planning system. For the future, we are widening the way in which we recruit inspectors by tapping into a wider pool of professionals.

We are also taking action on how we can improve on the current career progression opportunities for all our staff, including inspectors. We currently employ around 250 salaried inspectors who are allocated to cases and 18 inspectors who were recently recruited and are currently being trained. This pool of salaried inspectors needs to be allocated to cases and have programmes scheduled for them that make geographical sense and match their skills set.

You will appreciate that our inspectors undertake a host of activity, including local plan examinations, national infrastructure casework, enforcement and specialist appeals. These cases draw on our more experienced inspectors and inevitably place pressure on our remaining inspector resource to deliver other planning appeal casework. We handle an average of more than 22,000 appeals each year.

While we anticipated and planned for a sharp increase in workload, local plans and national infrastructure proposals during 2018/19, we were not able to recruit the number of inspectors needed when we advertised in mid 2017. We also have to take account of the lead-in time, typically around three to five years, for inspectors to gain the required skills and experience, enabling them to be available to examine more  complex cases.

The demand on our resources has been compounded by the unexpected receipt of more than 1,000 prior approval appeals for phone kiosks, and that number is likely to increase. Currently these have been absorbed into our normal planning appeal work, with consequent delays. We are now adopting a different model to process these appeals which will use our non-salaried inspectors, and this should release capacity back to mainstream work. This will have a positive impact on the overall time taken to determine appeals over the coming months.

We are working hard on a number of other fronts to improve our performance. Through our transformation programme, we are undertaking an end-to-end review of our processes, challenging the effectiveness of the technology that supports all our casework and looking forensically at our working practices. This work has already begun to deliver a significant improvement in performance, such as the time it takes to validate cases, which has halved compared to last year and currently stands at under a week. However, neither the projects nor the additional inspector resource will deliver a step change in our performance in the near future.

I am confident that next year our overall performance will have improved significantly, that we will be delivering quality appeal decisions more swiftly, demonstrating that we put customers at the heart of everything we do and the Planning Inspectorate will be in an even more sustainable position.

Sarah Richards, chief executive, The Planning Inspectorate

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