On 14 May 2019, the Planning Inspectorate published its Inquiries Review Action Plan to explain how it intends to implement the recommendations of Bridget Rosewell CBE’s Independent Review of Planning Appeal Inquiries. This blog considers what progress has been made and what are the main challenges to full implementation.
The Rosewell Review
Having been involved in a large number of major planning inquiries in recent years, I found myself back in February of this year vigorously nodding my head in agreement with the findings of the Rosewell Independent Review of Planning Appeal Inquiries, in particular “that there is substantial scope to improve the planning inquiry appeal process from start to finish”. I fully agreed with the view that improvements were needed to significantly reduce the time taken to conclude planning inquiries while, crucially, still maintaining the quality of decisions and reports. The 22 recommendations set out in the Rosewell Review were designed to address key failings in the inquiries process, focused on three main areas: better technology, earlier engagement by the parties and shorter inquiry programmes.
However, I also approached the review with a healthy dose of scepticism. Having seen first-hand the immense strain that inquiries place on PINS, on top of all the other workstreams for which they are responsible not least of which being the development consent process, I was rather doubtful about how quickly (if at all) these recommendations could be implemented by PINS so as to have a noticeable and beneficial impact on the process.
The PINS Action Plan
A few months on and PINS has now published its Inquiries Review Action Plan to explain how it intends to implement the recommendations of the Rosewell Review. Overall, the PINS response is positive, praising the Rosewell Review for the practical, common sense nature of the recommendations which promise to lead to much faster decisions and to radically improve the experience of users.
The Action Plan confirms that PINS’ ambition is to be deciding planning appeal inquiries within a 26-week target by June 2020. A table of actions, with clear delivery dates, has been produced showing how each of the 22 recommendations will be implemented. On the issue of resourcing, PINS has recently begun its latest recruitment drive, this time looking to recruit another 20 senior planning inspectors. This follows an inspector recruitment exercise in January of this year, during which 200 interviews were completed, 106 offers made and almost all accepted.
So far so good. However, then come the warnings. The Action Plan notes that a recent pilot of the new system has “underlined the size of the challenge and that there isn’t a quick fix”. Indeed, PINS believes that “a sizable transition period is likely to be needed”. Only five of the recommendations have now gone “live”, one of which is the preparation of the Action Plan itself, with 17 recommendations yet to be implemented. PINS also warns that, for the reforms to have maximum effect, all parties involved with planning inquiries will need to adjust their approach. In other words, there are factors in play that are outside of PINS’ control.
A big sticking point seems to be the creation of a new portal for the submission of inquiry appeals (and publication of inquiry documents) by December 2019. According to the Action Plan, a third-party system is being used as an interim measure for the pilot scheme. However the Government Digital Service, with whom PINS is working to establish the new portal, has ruled out the long-term use of a third-party tool and instead required the development of a strategic portal solution that will be internally owned and managed by PINS. This has led to delays, with funding being an unresolved concern. Rather unfortunately this was Recommendation 1 in the Rosewell Review – has PINS failed at the first hurdle?
Having spoken to people involved in appeals that are part of the current pilot scheme, the feedback seems to be that the inquiries process is indeed significantly quicker. The requirement for appellants to notify local planning authorities 10 days in advance of appeal submission (only guidance but could become fixed in legislation) is an important part of this. However, speed has come at a cost, with rumours of inquiry dates being fixed by PINS when whole teams are on holiday, although PINS claims that “a degree of flexibility” will be allowed “in exceptional circumstances”.
The Action Plan notes that the successful delivery of the Rosewell Review recommendations is likely to mean that inquiries are determined more quickly than hearings, which contradicts the logic that inquiries are supposed to be reserved for the most complex casework. According to the Government’s website, it now takes 43 weeks from appeal validation to decision for a hearing and 41 weeks for an inquiry, which must in part be due to the pilot scheme.
To address this, the Plan identifies that PINS will put extra attention towards hearings to improve their timeliness. Sensibly (in my view) the Action Plan also acknowledges that, alternatively, a better approach might be for the length of time required for a case to be decided not to be determined purely based on which procedure it follows but instead on a new set of published priorities (eg focussing on housing delivery or other key infrastructure) as the key determinant for decision timings.
Will it be successful?
That depends on how you define success. Will PINS hit the 26-week target by June 2020? If they enforce tight, inflexible inquiry programmes then probably yes. Will the new system result in more successful legal challenges in respect of decisions made? Possibly, but as Rosewell herself has argued, that may be a worthwhile price to pay if it means that the appeal process as a whole improves. Rosewell has promised to issue a progress report, jointly with PINS, in September 2019, and a full implementation report in June 2020, exactly two years after her appointment as Chair of the review.