Inspectors Letters – the True Test of Whether Planning is Getting Simpler

The planning system is getting more and more complex and suited only to a team of higher powered experts.

Why do I say this after a massive programme of simplification of policy and then guidance and hopefully in the future secondary and primary legislation.

I say it because the benchmark test is how easy it is for a layperson to understand a decision letter, whether on a plan or appeal.

Inspectors letters did become easier to read for a time.  For a while after the 2004 Act so did plan reports, often too short (witness some 6 page reports), too uncritical and with headings like -findings on soundness test C- not easy to read.  Nor they they often pin down what the key planning issues were in an area.

Things did not last long.  The courts blew a whole in the policy presumption if favour of soundness, not supported by the act.  So inspectors had to be more testing.  Objectors soon learned you needed to challenge the evidence and where necessary produce your own if it was dodgy. The government in producing National Policy and Guidance of such stunning vagueness on the key operational and technical issues (with its authors given the traditional establishment reward for civil service failure an OBE) forced inspectors to fill in the gaps.  Hence we have reports now filled with pages of findings on Liverpool method,  the index HRR method etc. that require some effort to avoid suicide from boredom reading through.

The courts will clearly be on inspectors backs if they mess up.  This forces a certain formalism in report writing.  However much can be done to promote plain English and clearer reports.

I still get a surprising number of hits a day praising the famous plain English of Judge Sally Hawkins findings.  It would be great if she could give some PINS training.

Fundamentally inspectors reports need to have a classic three act structure, a beginning, middle and end, setting out what needs to be decided, the thought process, and the conclusions.  For plan reports especially this is often lost.

You can still read plan reports without being able to grasp what the main spatial planning issue in the area is.  Often inspectors hands are tied in not being able to make pronouncements on the main issue.  The recent Brum inquiry is an example.  The key issue was the overspill from Brum, the inspector rightly concluding that legally this could only be done through 11 separate examinations. Legally correct under the current lobotomized system but operationally barmy. Nothing is decided until everything is decided unanimously and at once.  This is not a duty to cooperate so much as a duty to prevaricate.  Inspectors cant even now lay down clear recommendations on the key issue in half of LPAs, the need for a Strategic Green Belt review. Examinations have become in some cases like the Chilcott Inquiry, seemingly designed to prevaricate forever, like the production of Duke Nukem Forever- local plans as vapourware.  There are rumours of a few local plans being adopted and even fewer being up to date.  These are mostly urban legends.  Local plans used to exist a gneration ago, now we have made it to difficult to produce them and subject them to a strange form of technical literary criticism using arcane termininology and tortuous language that even Tom Paulin would find too post-structuralist.

The reform of planning has failed to simplify because it was based on a false assumption.  The fundamental problem were not too much policy and too hard to get permission, these were just symptoms.  The fundamental problem was not enough simple and spatially specific policy on where new development should go and how much, an inadequate understanding of the key planning issues affecting an area as a result and consequently not enough land in the right areas allocated for development.

A good planning minister should be spending a good portion of his or her time sitting down under Chatham House Rules with inspectors on what lessons there are to learn about how helpful national policy and guidance is and what barriers there are to good planning in the local plan areas they have examined. As a good use of their time this is 100 times more valuable than meetings with the Country Land and Business Association or any one of many more self serving lobbyists.

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