How the government's inquiry review panel might approach cutting timescales

Charging fees for appeals and better use of PINS resources are likely to be key ways of speeding up inquiries, say experts.

Inquiry review: the Planning Inspectorate headquarters, Bristol
Inquiry review: the Planning Inspectorate headquarters, Bristol

In March, while launching the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), former housing secretary Sajid Javid announced plans for an independent "end-to-end review" of the planning inquiry process. The review’s ambitious aim was to identify ways to halve the time it takes for inquiries on housing supply to be determined, Javid declared. In June, economist Bridget Rosewell OBE was appointed as the review’s independent chair, with a call for evidence issued a month later. It sought views by 18 September on the current operation of the planning appeal inquiries process and how it could be improved so that "decisions can be made sooner without compromising the quality of those decisions". The call for evidence document said the review would focus on appeal decisions for major housing proposals adding that a final report with recommendations would be made to the secretary of state by the end of 2018.

Behind this review lies growing frustration among developers with the time the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) takes to handle appeal inquiries. Its latest annual report showed that the average decision time from receipt of an inquiry appeal to a decision being issued was 44 weeks in 2017/18 - significantly higher than the 34-week average in 2014/15. The PINS report acknowledged that "for hearings and non-bespoke planning inquiries, timeliness was poor and a long way from target".

Why do inquiries have a particular problem with timeliness compared to other kinds of appeals? David Bainbridge, planning partner at consultancy Bidwells, pinpointed what he called the "long and unpredictable" lead-in time to inquiries as a key area of delay. This is linked to a shortage of experienced inspectors, said Chris Shepley, a former chief planning inspector. "Despite recent progress in recruiting new inspectors, the long lead-in time seems to be because PINS is having trouble finding one to hear the appeal promptly," he explained.

A lack of adequate funding and therefore resources for PINS is a major problem when it comes to appeal delays, commentators agreed. The public funds allocated to PINS by the MHCLG does not reflect the importance the government now places on boosting housing supply, said Bainbridge. "PINS needs a long-term increase in its funding and an active recruitment process to match the demands being placed on it," said Shepley. Dutch suggested that inspector’s pay should be reviewed, to encourage more skilled planning professionals to take on the roles and to raise its status in the planning profession.

Consequently, observers suggested that introducing fees for lodging inquiry appeals is likely to be something the review will consider. Andrew Burgess, group land and planning director at housebuilder Churchill Retirement Living said developers would be prepared to pay a fee to secure a definite timetable in the handling of an inquiry. "By paying a fee, an appeal could be fast-tracked," said Burgess. Claire Dutch, head of the planning team at lawyers Hogan Lovells, said such a move "would also deter unrealistic appeals which waste time".

Stricter inquiry timetables and more focused use of resources could also help, said observers. "Greater certainty and clarity on the timetable for inquiries would help local authorities line up the resources which they need to deploy," said Richard White, principal planning officer at Wycombe District Council.

Former inspector Derek Stebbing, now at consultancy Intelligent Plans and Examinations, suggested that "a lot of the inspectorate’s resources are inefficiently used on determining appeals on less important applications being handled through written representations". PINS could bring in external planning specialists to determine these appeals, so freeing up inspector time to deal with inquiries that typically involve large-scale developments and more complex issues, said Stebbing.

Fewer appeals should actually be subject to an inquiry, said Bob Bennett, planning consultant and chair of the Planning Officers Society’s development management group. "Informal hearings involving a panel take less time and resources for all the parties," he said. If a public inquiry is necessary, a greater focus on the key issues of contention is needed, suggested Simon Ricketts, a partner at law firm Town Legal.

Statements of common ground are now usually agreed between the developer and the local authority to resolve certain issues before the public inquiry, he pointed out. But such statements are not always kept to and these debates can get reopened at the inquiry, said Ricketts. Therefore, such agreements should carry greater weight in inquiries, he added.

Similarly, Bainbridge suggested that the parties involved could meet with the inspector about a month before the inquiry to agree the key contentious issues that the inquiry should focus on. "The inspector would then need to ensure that the inquiry rigorously kept to those issues," he suggested. Shepley said that pre-inquiry meetings may have resource implications if they removed inspectors from other inquiries, but in the long run "they could save time".

Furthermore, inquiries could be more efficient with shorter documentation and more effective use of technology, said Stuart Natkus, planning director at consultancy Barton Willmore’s Leeds office. There should be strict guidelines on the length of key documents and they should be made available on an inquiry website. "The inspector would not have to read such lengthy documents and it would save on printing multiple copies and carrying around large boxes," he said.

Three suggestions for speeding up appeal inquiries:

  1. Charging applicants for lodging inquiry appeals to boost PINS resources. Developers would be prepared to pay fees in return for a more certain timetable, say commentators. Funding could be used to hire more inspectors to determine appeals.
  2. Better use of inspectors’ time so they can focus on inquiries. External planning professionals could be used to determine less important written representation appeals.
  3. Pre-inquiry meetings to agree the key issues of contention. These points would then be the sole focus of the inquiry.

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