Pace Making: Progress At PINS

The Planning Inspectorate has certainly been moving at pace to improve its inquiry appeal processes following Bridget Rosewell’s independent review of planning appeal inquiries, which I covered in detail in my 15 March 2019 blog post Accelerated Planning.

The move to a system of imposing inquiry dates has predictably created the greatest fuss, although is possibly the change that will have the most positive effect in terms of cutting out hiatuses caused by the inevitable sparring between parties as to counsel, team and venue availability. The Planning Inspectorate’s latest 3 May 2019 update addresses that issue head-on:

The Planning Inspectorate is continuing to make good progress with taking forward the recommendations in the Independent Review of Planning Appeal Inquiriesand have now begun increasing the number of inquiry appeals being placed into this new way of working. There are clear benefits in progressing with implementing some of the recommendations and we thought it would be helpful to all concerned to explain our reasons.

To begin with, there can be little doubt that the principal thrust of the Review – to significantly shorten the time between receipt of an inquiry appeal and its final decision – is a significant improvement. To this end, we have been able to appoint more Inspector resource to inquiry appeals, than was envisaged in March when we announced the “pilot”, which has enabled us to bring most of these appeals into the process.

Some parties to the appeals have questioned why we have imposed inquiry dates when informing them of the ‘Start’ of the appeal and the name of the appointed Inspector. These letters are sent to the appeal parties as soon as possible after receipt of an inquiry appeal and have generally set the inquiry date to be between 13-16 weeks of the ‘Start’ date. This has been a significant innovation of the new process and provides the parties with clarity as to timescales from the outset.

To implement the recommendations of the Rosewell Review we must move away from our “bespoke” arrangements which gave specific provision for the parties to agree an inquiry date after an appeal had been submitted. Instead, now we are taking the lead in setting an inquiry date at the earliest opportunity, and this has led some parties to ask if there could be a degree of flexibility after the date had been fixed, or whether they could be given time to negotiate a new date.

We appreciate that this new procedure, for affected appeals, is very different to the way inquiry appeals were managed previously, and that some of the recommendations may be challenging, for everyone involved in the appeal. But it would be difficult to deny the significant advantages that an early inquiry date – and thus an early decision date – will bring to all concerned with the process. We will of course consider whether wholly exceptional circumstances are demonstrated by the parties to explain the unreasonableness of the inquiry date that has been set, but at the same time momentum must be maintained if the Review is to pay the dividends it promises.

The inquiry dates that are now being set give confidence to expect that those appeals will be decided in accordance with the timescales set out in Recommendation 21 of the Rosewell Report.

Recommendation 21 was as follows:

“21.The Planning Inspectorate should adopt the following targets for the effective management of inquiry appeals from receipt to decision

(a) Inquiry appeals decided by the inspector
Receipt to decision – within 24 weeks – 90% of cases Receipt to decision – within 26 weeks – remaining 10% of cases

(b) Inquiry appeals decided by the Secretary of State
Receipt to submission of inspector’s report – within 30 weeks – 100% of cases”

If we can move to a situation where these targets are met, I will have a lot of happy clients. In recent years, the unpredictability has been difficult to explain.

In the current pilot cases, PINS is seeking for inquiries to commence within a 13 to 16 week window of the start date.

And what if your advocate or a particular witness is not available? First, we are going to need to factor that into our pre-inquiry preparations: Who is the sub? Has someone else, a good junior, been shadowing everything such that they can step in or assist with the briefing of someone else? Secondly, surely we need to move away from the cult of personality. I suspect the fact that the system is so unfathomable for many clients increases their sense that as long as they hang onto X, Y or Z QC and A, B or C expert witness they will get through it. All credit to X, Y and Z, and A, B and C, but there are plenty of good barristers and advocates, and of course expert witnesses, at all levels. I suspect there may be a problem with your case if only one advocate (and only one “independent” expert witness) is capable of winning it. Additional costs in double-handling or re-briefing should still be outweighed by the overall cost and time savings if we all get this right.

Of course, speedier inquiry dates represent only one aspect of the changes. The Planning Inspectorate’s Independent Review of Planning Appeal Inquiries – Action Plan (April 2019 update), a document which will be regularly updated, sets out comprehensively the other changes being introduced, many of them with immediate effect.

The biggest ones for people to be aware of at the moment include:

⁃ the firm advice that appellants need to be notifying the relevant local planning authority, copying in PINS, at least ten days before submitting an appeal where they consider that the appeal should be dealt with by way of inquiry. This is important because PINS then requests a view from the authority on whether an inquiry is appropriate, within one day of receiving the appeal (in the current interim stage of bringing in the reforms this is within three days). In turn PINS can then issue the start date for the appeal, from which procedural deadlines flow, within five working days of receipt of the appeal rather than the average of seven weeks taken in 2017/2018! After six months of monitoring whether appellants are routinely giving ten days’ advance notice, the Government may take steps to introduce legislation to make it mandatory, so I think we should all play nicely?

⁃ early case management engagement from the inspector, within seven weeks of the start date, which will increasingly be by way of a conference call between the inspector and the parties (informed by a pre-conference note and agenda), followed by the inspector issuing “clear directions to the parties about the final stages of preparation and how evidence will be examined” no later than eight weeks after the start date.

⁃ the inspector’s directions to include identifying the “key matters in contention, where cross-examination of witnesses is required“, and decisions as to whether a topic by topic approach to the calling of evidence is required. We can expect a range of issues to be dealt with by way of roundtable sessions, without cross-examination.

⁃ encouragement for potential rule 6 parties to be identified at an earlier stage.

⁃ consultation is taking place so as to achieve improved and timely statements of common ground so that they can properly inform preparation of proofs of evidence.

⁃ greater focus on deadlines and indeed “MHCLG will look at the policy for the award of costs to see whether it can be extended to include a fine type of award, such as when evidence is not submitted on time“.

Christopher Young QC wrote an interesting post on LinkedIn this week, setting out his, favourable, experiences of and reactions to what he believes to have been the first Rosewell pilot case, an appeal by Bloor Homes in Penkridge, South Staffordshire. There is nothing unusual about the 3 May 2019 decision letter but the inspector had provided a pre-inquiry note indicating that issues relating to landscape impact and loss of agricultural land should be dealt with by roundtable session, and indicating that she would “prepare an agenda for those sessions based on the submitted proofs of evidence, focusing on the areas where there is disagreement“.

I’m not sure whether this was a formal PINS Rosewell pilot, as the pre-inquiry note predated the publication of the final report and the PINS announcement as to its pilot, but clearly this is a sign of things to come. As Chris notes, roundtable sessions will inevitably become more common. Chris’ inquiry was programmed for four days but only took two and a half days (with the final half day being taken up by closing submissions) – an indication perhaps of how a more directed approach by an inspector can cut timescales and therefore cost.

Incidentally, this is not meant as any reflection on Chris, who is one of the absolute best at nailing points comprehensively whilst quickly, but…

Do advocates’ closing submissions need to be quite so long? If the inspector were to impose a sensible word limit, would that not serve to reduce the current arms race? I was at an inquiry a few years ago when our counsel prepared 70 pages of closing submissions, which he then read out, in full. Very different from my memories of the late Roy Vandermeer QC, who famously regularly made his closing submissions without notes (after a long housing inquiry, as a pupil barrister I once had the impossible task of constructing a note of his submissions to provide them afterwards to the inspector. I looked at my scribble and despaired). I know it is the opportunity to encapsulate the party’s final position on all of the relevant issues and to make sure the inspector has one final chance to indicate if anything is not clear, but surely a little nudge from the inspector sometimes would not go amiss? The closing submissions process also places an enormous burden on the advocate, usually entailing lengthy overnight work which is not usually even separately charged!

For a broader summary of the current appeals system, I also recommend the 22 March 2019 House of Commons briefing paper Planning appeals in England.

There is also now a PINS video explaining how to take part in a planning inquiry (23 May 2019).

And that is this week’s news. Oh and our Prime Minister, for whom the housing crisis was apparently the “number one domestic priority” resigned.

Simon Ricketts, 25 May 2019

Personal views, et cetera