Reforms blamed for logjam

Growing anger over delays is putting the appeal system under close scrutiny, says David Blackman.

Perhaps planning minister Keith Hill should consult his plumber the next time he thinks about making a change to the planning system.

Like an ageing set of pipes, a surge of applications in one part of the overloaded system almost inevitably gums up the works somewhere else.

The latest blockage to cause problems is in the handling of appeals by the Planning Inspectorate. The Bristol-based agency has been forced to admit that appellants face a wait of 50 weeks for a site visit booking on written representations cases. "That's shorthand for saying that you are going to have to wait for a year for a decision," says HOW director Gary Halman.

The irony is that only a few short months ago appellants were being encouraged by the inspectorate to pursue written representations rather than inquiries to help save time. "It's quite shocking when this is supposed to be the most speedy route," says Margaret Casely-Hayford, joint head of planning and public law at legal firm Denton Wilde Sapte.

Association of Consultant Architects (ACA) planning advisory group chairman Andrew Rogers fears that the inspectorate has reached meltdown, with even the simplest appeals taking more than a year to determine. While its latest advisory panel report (Planning, 15 October, p1) paints a generally positive picture, it covers the year ending last March, before the backlog reached crisis level.

The worry is that things could get a lot worse. The logjam created by the government's shift to a three-month deadline for submitting appeals could just be a taster of the problems that will be created as the inspectorate adjusts to the planning reforms. "There is an updated system that requires inquiries into statements of community involvement and a whole raft of other planning documents," says Halman.

Observers agree that much of the backlog is beyond the inspectorate's control. The heightened focus on performance targets following the introduction of the planning delivery grant means that authorities are less willing to negotiate on contentious applications. This problem has been exacerbated by the three-month appeals deadline, which is now being "urgently reviewed".

The inspectorate's annual report for 2003-04 pinned much of the blame for an unprecedented 21.5 per cent leap in appeal intakes on the three-month deadline, introduced last September. The rising workload has already prompted ministers to relax the inspectorate's performance targets for appeal decisions (Planning, 13 August, p1).

British Property Federation chief executive Liz Peace argues that the procedural hiccup has to be viewed against the backdrop of a growing economy and an increasingly litigious society. Peace, a member of the inspectorate's strategic management board, argues that it is difficult for inspectors to cope with a "central government that drops policy on them that changes the nature of the demand".

But could the inspectorate have done more to head off the blockage? Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors planning and development faculty director Faraz Baber says: "We have been very pleased with the way that the inspectorate has operated over the past couple of years. We sympathise with the problems that it is facing. The reality is that there are not enough inspectors."

Halman is less sympathetic. "It's disappointing that the inspectorate did not foresee that this might be the result of the reforms that have been introduced in the past couple of years," he argues. "Maybe it's partly about remuneration packages. If you want to tempt people out of local authorities you have to make it an attractive career."

An inspectorate spokesman confirms that the organisation, clearly sensitive to the criticism that an increase in inspectors will be at local authorities' expense, is not actively recruiting at present. In any case, says Peace, the three years needed to train inspectors means that a recruitment drive would not deliver a quick-fix solution.

Former Planning and Environmental Bar Association chairman Guy Roots QC suggests that one way around the problem could be a recruitment drive for part-time inspectors. "Maybe we should be fishing out of a wider pond," adds Halman, suggesting a revival of the practice of recruiting lawyers, architects and surveyors as inspectors.

Others worry that in attempting to get inspectors working on a more regional basis, inspectorate chief executive Katrine Sporle has taken her eye off the backlog ball. "They are talking about reorganisation rather than dealing with the issues," says one senior planning source.

But Peace insists that the inspectorate needs to look ahead as well as deal with the current overload. "An organisation that refuses to contemplate change on those grounds is doomed to failure," she insists.

Many of these issues were being thrashed out at a meeting this week between the ACA, which has been particularly vocal on the backlog issue, and inspectorate and ODPM officials.

Sporle has warned that the ODPM is unlikely to change its target for councils to determine 80 per cent of minor and major applications within eight and 13 weeks respectively. But she says that the inspectorate is launching a pilot scheme for informal hearings, predicting that if successful, it will "considerably reduce the pressure on our resources".

Meanwhile, a review looking at ways of streamlining the handling of householder cases is nearly complete and the inspectorate is working with the Centre for Dispute Resolution to promote greater use of mediation.

But could the current crisis be the cue for more radical changes to procedures?

A consultation paper on planning appeals is due to appear within the next few months. Peace is interested in the idea that appellants should have less leeway to choose the type of appeal procedure. She dismisses concerns that this might limit human rights, contending that others' right to a swift hearing is being similarly compromised.

At last month's Oxford joint planning law conference, Sporle trailed a proposal that instead of each party at an inquiry having their own counsel, a single barrister could cross-examine all witnesses on the inspector's behalf. London Planning Development Forum chairman Brian Waters argues that this could cut the scope for conflict. Communities and developers with a lot at stake may not be so sanguine.

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