Bridget Rosewell, chair of the government-commissioned review, said that the average time taken to decide a planning appeal inquiry could be reduced from an average of 47 weeks to around 26 weeks. Her report recommends new targets, new appeal notification requirements and significant investment in the Planning Inspectorate to address poor IT infrastructure and a lack of suitably qualified staff.
Although the report is dated December 2018, its publication comes just days after a report by the National Audit Office (NAO), which also addressed an under-resourced Planning Inspectorate along with delays at local authority level.
Planning law expert Mike Pocock of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "It is important that the NAO report doesn't get buried under this one, particularly as both raise a critical issue: resources in the Inspectorate itself, both professional and technological. The NAO report recorded a fall in staff numbers at the Inspectorate by 13% between 2010 and 2018, amounting to almost 100 full-time equivalent staff. The 'summary of common themes' table in the Rosewell report clearly identifies the need for more resource at the Inspectorate as the overriding issue for respondents responding to the call for evidence at the start of the review process."
"The Rosewell report notes that the Planning Inspectorate 'already has advanced plans in place to increase recruitment' of inspectors, but this does not tally with the NAO report which states that it 'does not have detailed workforce plans to show how it will use existing and any newly recorded staff effectively'," he said. "April, when Rosewell recommends that the Planning Inspectorate produce an implementation report responding to the recommendations, is less than seven weeks away - I think we will all be interested in whether the action plan is fully resourced and facilitated by the government and delivers what the Rosewell report says it will. Also, if the plan is realistic about the recruitment and professional training required, particularly to deliver the high standards that inspectors are known and expected to perform to," he said.
The Rosewell review was commissioned in June 2018 to recommend ways to significantly reduce the time taken to conclude planning inquiries while maintaining the quality of decisions, with a particular focus on major housing schemes. Rosewell, an economist and National Infrastructure Commission commissioner, carried out an extensive programme of industry engagement to inform her recommendations, including a call for evidence.
The report recommends the creation of a new online portal for submitting inquiry appeals, to be in place by December 2019. This should include new pro-formas for statements of case, including mandatory information fields and word limits, where appropriate. Appellants should be required to notify their local planning authority of their intention to appeal a minimum of 10 working days before the appeal is submitted to the Planning Inspectorate, and to copy this notification to the Inspectorate. The Inspectorate would then be required to issue a start letter within five working days of receipt of the appeal, naming the inspector who will conduct the appeal.
Rosewell has made a number of recommendations for reform of 'statements of common ground', which the report concludes are often too vague and submitted too late to have any meaningful impact on the case. The statement of common ground is drafted by the appellant, and sets out areas of agreement as well as areas of ongoing dispute. The report recommends adopting a "topic-based" approach with more pro-forma areas, supported by guidance; and a much stronger focus on areas of disagreement in order to assist the inspector and parties focus their attention on the most important issues during the inquiry.
The report recommends new targets for the Planning Inspectorate including a target of 24 weeks from receipt to decision for 90% of inquiry appeals decided by an inspector; and of 30 weeks from receipt to decision for 100% of cases decided by the secretary of state. It also recommends that inspectors' workloads be organised in such a way that they have enough time to write up the case immediately after the close of the inquiry.
More and better case management is also recommended, including clear directions from the inspector on the final stages of preparation and how evidence will be examined, and early consideration of scheme amendments. The report also recommends greater use of 'round table' discussions during the inquiry itself, and a topic-by-topic based approach to the consideration of evidence.
At central government level, the report recommends that the secretary of state and Communities Department keep their approach to the recovery of appeals and called-in applications under review, and regularly discuss new policy and its implications with the Planning Inspectorate. It suggests that there may be some scope for "simple" changes to be introduced, which could "address points of unnecessary concern or ambiguity".