"Whilst the recommendations in the Rosewell report address specific elements of the inquiry process, they are interdependent, and their effectiveness relies on all parties undertaking them to ensure the necessary improvements are made."
In June 2018, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire announced the appointment of Bridget Rosewell to chair the Independent Review into Planning Appeal Inquiries (Rosewell Review). There are round about 15,000 appeals to the Planning Inspectorate against local authority planning decisions each year, 300 of which were determined at inquiry (as opposed to written representations) in 2017/2018. The purpose of the Rosewell Review was to make recommendations to significantly reduce the time taken to conclude planning inquiries, while maintaining the quality of decisions.
On 12 February 2019, the Government published a report containing 22 recommendations which the Rosewell Review thinks, if adopted, will significantly reduce the time taken to conclude planning inquires. Whilst the report suggests that most appeals can be dealt with through written representations or at a hearing, the report recognises that the current timescale for inquires of 47 weeks from receipt to decision needs to be addressed. The report identifies three principal areas of improvement:
> earlier engagement by all parties;
> greater certainty about timescales; and
> harnessing technology to improve efficiency and transparency.
We have highlighted below a few of the recommendations from the report that we consider to be key to reducing the time taken to conclude planning inquiries:
The report recommends that Planning Inspectorate directions should be given far earlier in the process to ensure that parties are engaged, and deadlines are met. The report suggests that the Planning Inspectorate should issue a start letter within 5 working days of receipt of the inquiry appeal – this is roughly 6 weeks shorter than the average timescale for issuing a start letter in 2017/2018. In addition, the report recommends that the parties should engage in case management within 7 weeks of the start letter.
Statements of Common Ground
The report concludes that statements of common ground “could be a powerful and effective tool for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the [appeal] process…”. The report recommends that both the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and the Planning Inspectorate should “substantially overhaul” the approach to the preparation of statements of common ground with greater emphasis being placed on the need to identify issues of disagreement.
The report acknowledges that a combination of factors has resulted in a substantial increase in the time taken for the Planning Inspectorate to identify a suitable inspector for inquires. In addition, the report notes that over the last few years there has been a decrease of circa 20% in the number and capacity of experienced inspectors to tackle the more complex inquires. The report recommends that the Planning Inspectorate should submit an action plan to the Secretary of State by April 2019 (only two months away!) which should include mechanisms by which a sufficient number of inspectors can be made available.
Better use of technology
Several respondents suggested that the submission of documents should be supported by the Planning Inspectorate through the better use of technology. This could include all documents being provided electronically with inspectors being issued with laptops/ tablets such that the inquiry itself can be conducted without the need for hard copy documents.
Introduction of appeal fees
Currently no fee is charged for making a planning appeal as opposed, for example, to issuing proceedings in the High Court. Whilst the review did not specifically seek views on the issue of appeal fees several respondents suggested that appeal fees may result in “measurable improvements” in the service provided to appellants by the Planning Inspectorate. The imposition of fees may also assist the Planning Inspectorate in resourcing experienced inspectors for the more complex inquires.
The ball is now firmly in the Secretary of State’s court as to whether and which of the recommendations are implemented by the Planning Inspectorate. Whilst many of the recommendations can be carried through with tweaks to current guidance and procedure it may be that a more fundamental structural change is required to make a meaningful reduction in the time taken to conclude planning inquiries. It is interesting to note that many stakeholders commend the current process and the quality of inspectors whose decisions at inquiries are valued.