Focus in the sector has concentrated in recent times (years) on the inconsistencies of decision making by Local Authorities in a time of relative policy-flux; and the impact such inconsistencies have on delivery of development.
Being aware of the risk of inconsistency leads planning consultancies into conservative positions when providing advice to clients; such conservatism may be unnecessary but is an obvious result when clarity is not available. It is the cumulative impacts of conservative advice, mixed with uncertain decision making, which has directly lead to an under-supply of development and the subsequent creation of another uncertainty to add into the mix: the current state of the appeals system.
It is obvious that poor or uncertain decision making at local authority level necessitates a need to rely more on the Planning Inspectorate [PINS] to correct matters; as recently as September 2015, PINS confirmed a like for like growth of 20% in the number of appeals lodged in 2015 in comparison to 12 months earlier. They have clearly been buckling at the strain of such a growth in the need for their services to the point where at one point in 2015 validation periods were up to 10 weeks after submission as oppose to the target of 10 days (although seemingly they had remedied the situation by Autumn 2015, releasing a press statement confirming they had reduced the average down to 18 days).
To put this into context, this is around an average of 1,300 individual appeals submitted every month; a huge amount and the result of a lack of confidence in decision making at LPA level. It is not as if every appeal submitted is upheld, far from it, and one must account for those appeals submitted in the blind hope that a decision is reversed, partly due to the fact that such punts are free. However, it cannot be doubted that a great number of appeals are submitted because it is felt that the policy position of the council is not robust; whether that is because the policy position is in flux in a time when New Local Plans are emerging or whether the policy itself is clearly robust, but the councils use or understanding of it does not give off the air of confidence it should.
The outcome is a current service from PINS that has lost, hopefully not forever, its procedural forthrightness. The procedural approach; its regimented deadlines, case management organisation and ordered liaison with appellants and councils alike has slipped from the standards we have expected as standard in the past. We ourselves have been subject to a number of procedural mistakes, forgotten deadlines and clear lack of understanding of systems being managed, for which we have received written apologies from PINS. Increased pressure with the same (or reduced) levels of infrastructure indefinitely leads to a drop in procedural quality, although it should be noted that the level of decision making when it eventually arrives, has remained on the whole of a decent standard.
There are exceptions. We are aware for example of a case for a major development which a rested on two reasons for refusal, both of which were clearly assessing interpretations of planning policy. One of the policies related to but did not actually involve the assessment of, Environmental Health issues. Clearly a matter to be dealt with by an Inspector with experience in interpreting planning policy, the decision was issued by an Inspector with a background in Environmental Health, with no planning qualifications of note.
The case above appears to be an anomaly but adds to the general uncertainty provided by PINS with regard to timeframe and procedure. PINS problematic situation is therefore a direct outcome of low current standards at LPA level; the difficulty is that it is PINS who are relied upon to raise levels where they have been lost.
Is the solution to bolster PINS in order to improve decision making at LPA level by osmosis, or bolster LPAs in order to alleviate pressures on PINS, naturally bringing standards up to the expected level? One way or the other, stimulus is needed.
MRICS BSc (Hons) RICS Accredited Expert Witness
NextPhase Development Ltd.