Wednesday, 25 July 2012

In praise of the Planning Inspectorate

In his occasional column in Planning magazine, on 13 July, Chris Shepley (a former Chief Planning Inspector) mounted a spirited defence of the Planning Inspectorate in light of recent sniping from the parliamentary sidelines by some of the more antediluvian members of the Tory right wing.

Needless to say, I strongly agree with the views that Chris Shepley expressed, and I have set down similar views in this blog on several occasions. We need a robust appeals system and a strong Planning Inspectorate to make independent objective decisions on controversial planning issues. That is exactly what we’ve got, and have had for over 60 years (in fact for over a century if you trace the origins of the Planning Inspectorate back to its roots in the 1909 Act).

As Chris Shepley observed, the inspectorate has built an unrivalled reputation for fairness and impartiality. He is absolutely right in pointing out that inspectors’ decisions, often on highly contentious matters, are almost universally respected and in most cases are readily accepted. Successful High Court challenges of appeal decisions are fairly rare as a percentage of all the appeals which are decided each year, and the inspectorate regularly achieves a level of ‘customer satisfaction’ that other organisations would die for.

Those back-bench Tories who are whingeing about some appeal decisions seem to be pursuing the rotting remnants of the Conservatives’ pre-election ‘localism’ agenda. This stems from grass-roots resentment that silly decisions made by local councillors are liable to be overturned on appeal, and (forsooth) that local councils can even have costs awarded against them if they are considered to have behaved unreasonably in refusing planning permission, or in deciding to take enforcement action. How dare an inspector have the cheek to tell elected councillors that they have behaved unreasonably!

Ministers appear at last to have abandoned pre-election intentions to emasculate the planning appeals system – an idea that arose from this same backwoods resentment of an independent procedure for reviewing local planning decisions, which in the meantime has led to the very unwise decision to scrap strategic planning at the regional level. The alternative to a strong appeals system would be a large increase in the number of applications to the High Court for judicial review of planning decisions, coupled with increasing resentment of the planning system among those unable to afford such an expensive procedure. This would undermine public respect for the planning system and would erode the largely consensual basis on which it is founded.

As Chris Shepley observed, it is difficult to see how the planning system could function without the underpinning of quality and rigour that it derives from the work of the Planning Inspectorate. One can only hope that ministers will continue to ignore the bleating from the Stupid Tendency in the Tory Party, and will give the Planning Inspectorate the support and resources it needs to carry on the vital work it performs.



  1. I wish I could agree with you 100%, but I can't.

    Nobody is perfect and I have often seen predilections creeping in from pre application advice through the appeals process right up to ministerial level.

    One has to ask if a single person is capable of being entirely objective and of course accurate in every detail.

  2. Dr Anton Lang MRTPI26 July 2012 at 14:21

    I guessed I would not be the only one keeping those two pages on file to demonstrate that the PI is beyond reproach and an excellent body and system. Well done CS.

  3. In response to Evan, ultimately it is inevitably the judgment of one person, but the Planning Inspectorate is rigorous in its selection procedures for inspectors, very thorough in its training and in the past has given strong managerial support to inspectors (although I don’t know whether cuts might have affected the last factor more recently). I think I can understand what Evan is saying, and one sometimes feels that a particular inspector might be inclined to be more strongly influenced by adopted policies than by other material considerations (or vice versa), but I would still maintain that there is a high level of objectivity among inspectors. On the other hand, even judges of the superior courts can have their own personal approach to particular issues. That is an unavoidable attribute of human nature.

  4. I to feel that the Inspectorate make the right decision in what I feel, 95% of the time. Although I only look upon agricultural matters, it does feel that they have an intuitive sense to determine genuine from not. The pity is that planning officers and LPA's are not so well educated to make such well informed decisions.

    Let's hope politicians do not get to meddle and ruin it such as has been done with most other national bodies (NHS, education, etc.)