A blog about planning, planning law and planning policy

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The information on this blog is not intended to be advice, legal or otherwise. You should not rely on it and I do not accept liability in connection with it. If you do have a planning law question on which you would like advice, seek legal advice from a suitably qualified solicitor. Specific advice should be sought for specific problems.

Is the Planning Inspectorate the new bogeyman of the planning system?

 

There was a debate in the Commons this week over the NPPF.  There were two recurrent themes and one really serious point.  The two themes were (i) that planning lawyers will be rejoicing over the NPPF as it is going to lead to a lot more cases and (ii) the role of the Planning Inspectorate. I will post on the lawyers  issue next week, but first to the Inspectorate which is more serious.

The comments about the Inspectorate were almost all negative and I think it is worth setting them out.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I am completely with my right hon. Friend on the consistent application of the plans, on the local plans themselves and on local people being involved, but what then of the final piece of the jigsaw, the reform of the Planning Inspectorate, which in many rulings completely contradicts all local input?

Greg Clark: Part of the problem with the Planning Inspectorate…

By putting power into the hands of local people so they see that decisions are going to be taken locally and respected locally, part of the purpose of our reforms is to move away from the situation in which decisions taken locally are overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. I have made that very clear to the inspectorate. I went to speak to the inspectorate the morning after we published the NPPF, and I made it very clear that the framework is a localist document which it is to respect.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does [the Minister] accept that there is a slight risk that when local plans come to be examined in public, we will again see the influence of the Planning Inspectorate and elements of the local plans may be overturned? Does he agree that when it comes to local plans, the default answer from the Planning Inspectorate ought to be yes?

Roberta Blackman-Woods(City of Durham) (Lab): …My point is that far from increasing the power of communities, which has been much championed by the Minister, the NPPF could lead to even more decisions being made by the Planning Inspectorate, which is removed from local communities.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): …The Minister knows my concerns about the Planning Inspectorate, and I understand that he has written to a constituent of mine, saying that there is a chance of its duties, or the inspectorate itself, being reviewed soon, so I should like to hear something about that.

There is considerable criticism here of the Inspectorate.  The flavour is both  that they should not overturn a local decision and that there is something wrong about their procedures and function.  Christopher Heaton-Harris in particular seems to have it in for the Inspectorate and is evidently campaigning for its reform and a review of its duties.  I hope we can see the letters he has written to the Minister.

His comments and those of the other MPs quoted above suggest that any appeal which is allowed is now seen as wrong because it is the reversal of a locally made decision.  The flavour is that local decisions are going to be right, whatever they say.  So the Inspectorate is going to be in the wrong whenever it allows an appeal.

But a moment’s reflection shows that cannot possibly be the right approach. Firstly, we give a right of appeal against most governmental (including local government) decisions. Examples include benefits, licensing, tax and rent assessment.  This has two benefits.  The existence of the right of appeal, where the decision maker has to justify their decision encourages greater rigour.  And the courts are not burdened with legal challenges.  Second, what is to happen where the authority misinterprets its own policy, or makes factual errors, or misunderstands the statistical evidence presented?  Our system does of course allow an authority to go against its own policy, but good reasons have to be given.  It is not to be done capriciously. The ability to appeal – the Inspectorate in other words – is one of the safeguards of that.  And thirdly, how is national policy going to be applied if it is simply what local authorities say it is.

I am reminded of Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

We often stop there, but Humpty and Alice’s exchange went on:

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.

The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

Clive Betts put his finger on it during the debate when he observed,  “But, if the sum total of all local decisions to which the Minister has referred does not account for the amount of growth that the Government want to see delivered in the economy as a whole, what will be the Government’s answer to that?”

But, as Lewis Carroll also wrote, “Answer came there none”.

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