An inspector calls
Katrine Sporle has been charged with making the Planning Inspectorate a leaner, more efficient organisation, and she believes she can make a real difference It is a safe bet that the Planning Inspectorate is currently a very unpopular organisation in the office of Chapman Taylor Architects.
Last month, after a 10 month wait, John Prescott finally got round to reading a damning inspector's report and responded by turning down the practice's controversial Coppergate shopping centre.
The organisation behind that report, the Planning Inspectorate, is nothing if it is not a large and unwieldy bureaucracy. It churns out reports on all the schemes called in by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). Although Prescott does not have to follow its recommendations, he nearly always does. And planners with real power are something many architects find unpalatable.
But Katrine Sporle is a little different.
When we meet, the new chief executive of the inspectorate is immediately keen to push home the message that she really is interested in architecture for architecture's sake.
Speaking to her nine months after she took up her post at the inspectorate, it is clear she is revelling both in the job and the opportunity it gives her to service her passion for all things architectural.
'I used to cycle from my Swindon home when I was a teenager to Foster's Renault building, ' she tells me with a dreamy look in her eyes. 'I would simply sit and stare at it. It is an absolutely fabulous building.' A cynic would suggest this anecdote has been trotted out to architects all over the country to persuade then they are talking to a sympathiser.
But either she is a good actor or she really does mean it.
Sporle joined the inspectorate on 2 January this year from Basingstoke council where she was also chief executive. But, unlike many in the planning world, she has a background outside paper-pushing in local authorities.
ODPM mandarins were explicit when she was appointed that they were impressed she had worked successfully in the private sector as a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Just the kind of individual the government is keen to see in its new 'super efficient' planning system.
And when I interview her it soon becomes apparent that she is about as far removed from the archetypal planner as it is possible to be. We start with the issue of the moment.
The world of architecture is consistently frustrated about the overly lengthy appeals process, I tell her. Of course, much of the blame sits at the door of 'Two-Jags', who seems happy to allow inspectors' reports to gather dust on his desk for months at a time before finally coming to a decision. But shouldn't some of the responsibility also lie with the planning inspectorate?
To my surprise Sporle agrees. Something has to be done or the organisation will lose whatever respect it holds at the moment, she says. Proposals are currently in development that will force inspectors to set out a timetable at the beginning of an inquiry that they will then be forced to see through.
'Inspectors will have to set a timescale and then deliver against it, ' she says. 'People want certainty about when they can expect a decision and this is what we should aim to achieve. We cannot be expected to deal with some of the massive cases within our current 16-week target, but we can make sure that everyone is certain of how long they will take'.
Sporle also believes that the others need to be bullied into action if the inquiry process is going to be really sped up. 'Our inspectors need to be certain of what they are going to have put in front of them at an inquiry. They are dependent upon evidence and often it is not up to scratch. All parties should be forced to provide the evidence that we need, ' she says.
'But I also think all planners should be exercising their power more effectively. Yes, they are under pressure. Yes, they have to work hard. But they do have the authority to show the world just how important planners can be.'
Although it soon becomes obvious that Sporle is one of life's natural reformers, and is obviously determined to push through a whole raft of changes, she is also very loyal to the inspectors and their work. 'They are all utterly committed to what they do, ' she tells me. 'They are also determined to help me produce a better, faster and fairer planning inquiry system.
They have already all done extremely well over the last few years at speeding up the process.'
And then, out of the blue, she tells me that she has seen the inspector's report into Renzo Piano's 'Shard of Glass'. 'I won't tell you its recommendation, ' Sporle says with a small laugh, clearly amused by my curiosity. 'But what I will say is that it is a fantastic piece of work that deserves a huge amount of praise.'
Perhaps surprisingly, Sporle returns at the end of my half-hour 'slot' to again force home the message out that she really is an architecture buff. One wonders whether this is part of a determined push to improve relations with the architecture world. 'If it works well it can be a really amazing thing for everyone, ' she says. 'Like when I first saw the Pompidou Centre in my 20s, I was completely and utterly taken with it.'
And the future? How long is she prepared to give to the job? 'When I signed up, I was determined I should give it at least five years, and I haven't changed my mind. All that has changed since is that I am sure I can make a real difference in that time, ' she adds with a smile.