PINS chief warns of 'existential' recruitment threat facing planning system

The chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) has warned that recruitment is an 'existential threat' facing the planning system, and said a 'root and branch' review aiming to speed up the appeals system is currently underway.

Sarah Richards speaking this morning at the Planning for Housing conference
Sarah Richards speaking this morning at the Planning for Housing conference

Speaking this morning at Planning's Planning for Housing conference in London, Sarah Richards said that recruitment, particularly in the area of plan-making, was an "existential threat to both the Planning Inspectorate and the planning system".

She said that, according to her own "back of an envelope" calculations, there were only around 1,000 people across the country "whose day-to-day job is to write plans".

"The delivery of the whole of our thinking about future places is reliant on this very small core of people", Richards said.

Anecdotally, she said she had heard that "90 per cent of planning graduates, if they are coming into planning at all, are going into the private sector. For those ten per cent, not many are going into plan-making".

Student placements and graduate schemes are "part of the solution", said Richards, and pointed to a need for planners to "enthuse" students and young people about the role of planning.

Richards also said she would be "opening up new doors of entry into the Planning Inspectorate for people who aren’t qualified", and said the body is developing a graduate scheme.

Elsewhere, Richards said that work to speed up the planning appeal inquiries process, via the government’s Rosewell review and internal PINS work, was well underway.

She said it was "very clear that many users find our systems very slow and cumbersome", and promised a "real root-and-ranch review of our end-to-end processes".

Some time "early to the middle of next year" PINS would reveal a "completely refreshed way" to submit planning appeals via its appeals portal, Richards said.

PINS would "move over the coming period to having much less tolerance of invalid submissions", and would make the submission process more like that of the Passport Office "with all documents having to be submitted at the appoint the appeal is lodged".

Richards also said that users of the appeals portal would be able to see what stage their appeal is at, helping to avoid what she described as the "PINS black hole".

Addressing PINS’ resourcing issues, Richards said "there isn’t going to be a quick turnaround", but said the body was recruiting and seeking to bolster is staffing levels.

The body had faced a "perfect storm" over the last year, with a "peak" in local plan examinations, combined with "meteoric growth" in national infrastructure work, putting pressure on its "limited pool of highly experienced inspectors".

The chief executive further offered up a series of "top tips from inspectors" for councils submitting plans for examination.

Richards said that "good plan examinations are ones where the plan makes difficult, sensible and justified decisions about housing need and housing land supply, including the unmet needs from neighbouring areas".

Evidence should "clearly support the plan’s strategy", be easy to understand, and policies should be "clear and succinct, not waffly and vague or ambiguous".

Plans should also be deliverable and demonstrate "truly effective engagement with other authorities, stakeholders and of course the community", said Richards.

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