Appeals and inquiries - insight into the process

Will planners embrace the required changes so that community involvement in decisions has an impact? Sue Frampton reports.

The inspector's role is to hear and obtain all the evidence and to exercise independent judgement in each case, said inspector Philip Major at a recent Yorkshire branch conference. The role of the other participants in the process is to ensure that the inspector fully understands the case, is persuaded by their point of view and is provided with the facts.

Major predicted an increase in the number of public inquiries as development plan documents are produced and said that the inspectorate is looking at fresh ideas and initiatives on how to manage this demand, including piloting an electronic appeals process.

Hambleton District Council's Maurice Cann said that the lack of training for appeals and inquiries means that for many planners their involvement is a baptism of fire. The decision notice is the key document. It is the starting point of the whole process and it is essential to get right: is it clear, does it contain relevant local plan policies and does it cover all the issues? His conclusion was that appeals and inquiries present a professional challenge that local authority planners should rise to and that, having prepared fully, they should be able to put forward their professional opinion with confidence and with the courage of their convictions.

An insight into the part played by the consultant was provided by Janet O'Neill of O'Neill Planning Associates. The first role is to advise the client on whether there are grounds for appeal, assess the chances of success and the implications of the timescales - currently between seven and ten months before a case is heard - on their business.

The second role is that of expert witness. O'Neill pointed out that the consultant's responsibility is to inform the inspector and not advance their client's specific interests. She emphasised the importance of reviewing the whole exercise and the lessons learnt because "in the end it is about winning and losing, and you have to win".

Third parties, said Hugh Ellis from Friends of the Earth (FoE), whether non-governmental organisations such as FoE or non-aligned groups or individuals or communities of interest, are an essential voice in planning and particularly in the very public face presented by the appeals and inquiries process.

He regards the government paper on community involvement in planning as an important step forward. Cost, language and labyrinthine procedures are the main barriers to the population's effective involvement in the planning system. The cost of information and of getting hold of or commissioning surveys, studies, environmental impact assessments and sustainability appraisals can be prohibitive for many groups. The language of planning and the way we express ourselves are barriers to good communication.

Although the new hierarchy of plans and supporting documents is very complex, the framework for participation is simple, the approach being underpinned by the UN's Aahus Convention - the principle that sustainable development can only be achieved through the involvement of all stakeholders - and the three principles of access to information, participation in the decision making process and access to justice in environmental matters.

The purpose of advocacy, according to Rollitts' solicitor Stephen Hawkins, is to test assumptions and the weight given to policies and not brow beat witnesses into submission. In fact, this is only one of the areas in the appeals process in which lawyers become involved. The others include legal advice on procedures, prospects of success, planning conditions and the implications of challenging decisions, and the mundane but necessary administration including co-ordinating the team, time limit reminders, housekeeping and advice on obligations and evidence.

This latter area is regarded by planning lawyers as more important than the advocacy role and involves ensuring that the evidence addresses all the issues and that witnesses are well briefed, aware of the procedures and feel comfortable with the process.

- Sue Frampton is a planner with Kingston-upon-Hull City Council.

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