What lies behind councils' vociferous criticism of local plan inspectors?

Recent instances of councils strongly and publicly criticising an inspector's handling of the examination of their local plan reflect the reality that they are not in complete control of the documents, say experts

Central Bedfordshire Council: row over 'withheld' examination documents
Central Bedfordshire Council: row over 'withheld' examination documents

This year has seen some heated exchanges between councils and the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) about the way that inspectors have worked with authorities on their local plan examinations.

In February, East Cambridgeshire District Council criticised a planning inspector over her handling of the examination of its local plan. The council’s strategic planning manager Richard Kay complained about the inspector’s conduct of the examination, alleging slow examination speed, uncertainty about the likely way forward and delays in producing the proposed modifications. The council also objected to the approach inspector Louise Nurser took to suggesting modifications. It said: "Highly unusually, all of these changes have been required by the inspector without explanation".

In October, Central Bedfordshire Council accused two planning inspectors of withholding crucial correspondence in relation to its local plan examination. The council made the accusation after inspectors Matthew Birkinshaw and Helen Hockenhull raised a series of concerns about the plan’s preparation and the authority's approach to the examination process, including about the amount of post-submission evidence filed by the council and the apparent way in which this "sought to retrospectively justify the plan’s strategy".

Its assistant director of development and infrastructure Andrew Davie said that the way that the inspectors were communicating with the council was not "consistent with a desire to work proactively with the council to progress this plan, which is not hugely helpful." Later on, the inspectors admonished the council for "incorrectly" issuing a statement to the public that the document's housing target would not need to be increased.

The most recent of the spats occurred in November, culminating in a Sevenoaks District Council protest about the "thinly veiled charade that local plans are in any way locally-led".

Planning inspector Karen Baker had written to the council, following the first stage of its examination hearings, saying that the council had failed to fulfil its duty to cooperate with neighbouring councils to find sites for new homes, and that this might mean that it would have to withdraw its local plan.

The council complained about Baker publishing her note before allowing the council to see her reasoning or giving it a chance to respond. It said the inspector’s approach called into question "the integrity of the whole plan-making system in this country".

Council leader Peter Fleming says: "We would have been willing to have a debate with the planning inspector quietly and tried to come to a resolution, but the demands from the inspector on us meant we had no choice but to go public in the strongest possible terms."

Both East Cambridgeshire and Central Bedfordshire councils complained about their inspectors’ lack of experience. Bill Hunt, planning committee chair at East Cambridgeshire, says that "the examination of [our] local plan was the inspector’s first." He says: "We felt that some of her decisions were illogical and she didn’t really understand the plan."

The rows reveal tensions about the extent of the some of the flexibilities local plan-making authorities have recently been given in terms of local plan preparation, says one commentator.

"Greater pragmatism is now allowed in the way local plans are tested, with some modifications being made later," says Mary Cook, partner at law firm Town Legal. "But the inspectors are clearly putting a limit on that. The local authorities are finding that hard to accept. One of those limits is on how the duty to co-operate is interpreted, which is frequently a point of contention with local plan examinations. This was the sticking point with the Sevenoaks plan. Once a plan is submitted, the councils have to show how they have co-operated with their neighbours, and co-operation can't be left till later in the examination process or once the plan is implemented".

Another expert points out that disputes about sharing of documents have been at the heart of some of the rows. "The sharing of documents by all sides during the course of an examination is key to avoiding disagreements," says John Rhodes, director of consultancy Quod and chair of the government’s former Local Plan Expert Group. "Generally that does happen, but there could always be more consistency".

Tim Smith, partner at law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and chair of the Law Society’s Planning & Environment Committee, said: "The three local authorities expressed concern that modifications suggested by inspectors meant that it was no longer their plan. They need to understand that plans have to reflect central government priorities as well as local aspirations. There is nothing new in that."

Contacted by Planning for a response to the councils' criticism, the Planning Inspectorate issued a statement. It said: "Inspectors are sometimes unfairly criticised publicly for their conclusions on examinations of a local plan. They carry out a difficult job in a complex and contentious areas. The conclusions that inspectors reach will not always please everyone.

"It’s important to understand that inspectors can only recommend changes to make a plan sound if requested to do so by the authority. If the authority makes this request, the inspector will aim to ensure that the local planning authority has a reasonable understanding of why all the potential main modifications are likely to be needed and work in a way which is open, fair and impartial. Inspectors are appointed as independent examiners and the conclusions they reach are always their own.

Central Bedfordshire Council says relations with their inspectors have improved since their earlier exchanges. Andrew Davie, assistant director of development and infrastructure at the council, says that: "Since the council’s exchanges with the inspector over its local plan, a new approach has emerged on both sides. We really didn’t feel before that the inspector was our critical friend. Now it seems that the inspector is taking a more pragmatic approach and there is some confidence that the plan can be made sound."

"Councils clearly want to get their version of the truth out," says Mike Kiely, chair of the board of the Planning Officers Society, which represents public sector planners. "They are concerned about the political flak they will get from their electorate, if their plan is stalled". But he adds "There is a danger inspectors will feel boxed in if the council is too vociferous in public."


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