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Planning meltdown

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The Planning Inspectorate admits that even the simplest written appeal will now take more than a year to decide

The Planning Inspectorate's performance against appeals targets is measured as the time taken to determine 80 per cent of appeals. The ministerial targets were to determine 80 per cent of appeals that are decided by written representation within 16 weeks, hearing cases within 22 weeks and inquiry cases within 30 weeks.

The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) now admits that even the simplest written appeal will now take more than a year to decide. The weasely ministerial response is the announcement last month that the target figure of 80 per cent of appeal decisions is to be reduced to 50 per cent 'in view of the increase in appeals being experienced'. But this increase is largely of the government's own making, resulting in great part from the unprovoked announcement last year that for all applications made from 5 September 2003, the six-month period allowed to lodge an appeal was to be reduced to three months.

As predicted in this column at the time, this means that for even slightly complex cases applicants will often be well advised to take a 'deemed refusal' after eight weeks knowing that, especially in London, the planning authority is likely to take longer than three more months to reach a decision, and that decision, if positive, might be overly burdened with conditions to boot.

The ODPM was already concerned at the general, unpredicted rise in appeals and so commissioned Arup to investigate. Its report*, published last February and covering 200102, attributes much of the rise to 'an increased refusal rate nationally', a change it says ocurred during 2001 'marking a clear break with historic trends'. Arup's best remedy seems to be a vain hope: it surmises that 'it is likely that the pressure on development control services will decline, as the widely expected downturn in application numbers occurs. However, to some extent offsetting this effect, the resources devoted to forward planning will need to increase.' I do not recall the chancellor announcing plans for an economic downturn, but Arup's last point is sound. On 7 September, the government released PPSs 11 and 12 (procedures for the new planning system) and announced the commencement date for the three-year transition from development plans to framework documents, consideration of which will boost demand for planning inspectors and reduce their availability for appeals.

Arup observes: 'The Inspectorate can increasingly be seen as an alternative to the planning committee or delegated procedure.' Well, precisely. It concludes: 'As in most businesses there is therefore a clear need to provide contingency arrangements to ensure that both demand and targets can continue to be met in an efficient manner.' Ministers obviously were not listening and the crisis is now upon us. Ron Tate, a Royal Town Planning Institute vice-president, recently described the appeal system as 'in meltdown' and is tabling a paper to the forthcoming National Planning Forum. The Association of Consultant Architects (ACA) has written an open letter to the PINS chief inspector suggesting emergency measures, which include the following points:

l Pending the negotiation period proposed by the new Planning Act, the six-month period for lodging an appeal should be reinstated immediately.

l The 8/13 week periods allowed for processing applications can already be extended by agreement in writing** - this should be recognised so that councils are not penalised when such an agreement is negotiated.

l Inspectors should make known their decision immediately with written reasons.

l Inspectors should be encouraged to make an award of costs, even when one is not requested, especially in all cases where a planning officer's recommendation to approve is overturned - or when there is no recommendation at all - and the appeal is subsequently successful.

l Mediation should be introduced for simpler appeals. These would not require the involvement of a fully trained inspector but would be overseen by an arbitrator or other qualified professional - thus releasing inspectors to address not only the backlog that has arisen but also the plethora of local development documents that are about to come up for consideration under the new Act's procedures.

Tate concludes that there is a real need to either adjust appeal timetables for the now extended period, or to add an opportunity for final submissions to reflect any new material considerations, say four weeks before the hearing or site visit - as is already allowed in inquiry procedures.

The appeal system and PINS is the bookend which shores up the whole planning system, and the impending disaster is a direct consequence of this government's obsession with 'targetism'. Conspiracy theorists might recall the fuss provoked by the McKinsey report, which charged planning with depressing the national GDP, and anticipate a sledgehammer coming down on planning from the chancellor to protect the economy.

The deputy prime minister would be well advised to act fast on the ACA's recommendations.

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