Let Me Count The Ways

How unromantic. To my disappointment, that line from Elizabeth Browning’s poem is not followed by a list of the differences between the section 247 and 257 procedures for stopping up highways.

I need to fill that gap.

After all, the process for stopping up highways in order to enable development to be carried out is a vital corner of our planning system that is particularly dysfunctional and lacking in logic. Perhaps because the process largely comes after the decision as to whether the development itself is to be approved, there is too little focus on whether it is working effectively. The last material change to the procedure was the limited, but welcome, amendment made by way of the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, which at least allowed it to commence prior to planning permission being granted.

Section 247 (1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides that “the Secretary of State may by order authorise the stopping up or diversion of any highway outside Greater London if he is satisfied that it is necessary to do so in order to enable development to be carried out…in accordance with planning permission...”

The procedure covers all types of highway.

Section 257 (1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides that “[s]ubject to section 259, a competent authority may by order authorise the stopping up or diversion of any footpath, bridleway or restricted byway if they are satisfied that it is necessary to do so in order to enable development to be carried out…in accordance with planning permission…”

The procedure just covers footpaths, bridleways and restricted byways.

The substantive test in relation to both processes is whether the stopping up is “necessary” in order to enable the development to proceed and whether stopping up is in the public interest. However, they are administered in very different ways (and the section 247 process is different in London).

(Outside London) a section 247 application is made by the developer to the Secretary of State for Transport, and is administered by the Department for Transport’s National Transport Casework Team in Newcastle. The casework team’s guidance indicates that the “Department aims to process Orders where there are no objections within 13 weeks from receipt of all necessary information.”

If there are objections following publicity for the application, the Secretary of State considers in his discretion whether an inquiry is to be held. If an inquiry is to be held, there are no procedural rules which govern the process. The inspector is appointed by the DfT and reports to the Secretary of State for Transport, who makes the final decision.

(In London, section 247 order applications are made by the developer to the relevant borough.

If objections are received and cannot be resolved, the application is referred to the Mayor of London, who either decides that under section 252 (5A) that “in the special circumstances of the case” an inquiry is unnecessary, in which case the borough may confirm the order, or that inquiry is necessary, in which case the borough must cause an inquiry to be held.)

A section 257 application is made by the developer to the local planning authority, following the form set out in the Town and Country Planning (Public Path Orders) Regulations 1993. If there are objections following publicity for the application, section 259 and schedule 14 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 require that the application must be referred by the local planning authority to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (although in practice by way of reference to the Planning Inspectorate’s rights of way section).

Unlike with opposed section 247 order applications, there are procedural rules that govern the determination of opposed section 257 order applications, namely the Rights of Way (Hearings and Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2007 and there is also procedural guidance published by the Planning Inspectorate.

Unless each objector indicates that he or she doesn’t wish to be heard in front of an inspector, PINS will either arrange a hearing or a public inquiry. There are set timescales for the relevant stages. For a hearing, each party wishing to give evidence must provide a statement of case within 12 weeks of the start date. The hearing should generally take place within 20 weeks of the start date. For an inquiry, the parties must provide their statements of case within 14 weeks of the start date and proofs of evidence must then be provided at least four weeks before the start of the inquiry, which should generally be not later than 26 weeks after the start date.

Not only is it odd that the Planning Inspectorate has no discretion to decide that an opposed application be determined by written representations unless all objectors agree (contrast with section 247 but also with the powerless position of an appellant in relation to a section 78 appeal) but these timescales are way out of kilter with modern, post Rosewell, inquiry timescales, where statements of case are due within five weeks of the start date and the inquiry will generally be within 13 to 16 weeks of the start date.

There is a further sting in the tail: The Planning Inspectorate’s procedural guidance warns:

Having received an order from a local authority, we aim to issue the notice containing the ‘start date’ to all the parties within 10 weeks.”

Ten weeks! That is often by definition ten additional weeks on the post permission, pre construction, timeline for a project.

So a section 257 order is likely to take around 36 weeks to get to inquiry…

The only good news is that (another difference between section 247 and 257 orders), the inspector can make the final decision in relation to section 257, so there is no further delay caused by waiting for the Secretary of State to consider his or her report.

In conclusion, there are unjustified differences between what should be very similar processes:

⁃ No overall statutory procedural framework (no procedural rules in relation to section 247; out of date procedural rules in relation to section 257, in terms of leisurely time limits and limited scope for determining that a written representations procedure is adequate)

⁃ No single decision-maker (two different Secretaries of State – and in London the Mayor’s role in relation to section 247 – and section 257 decisions are taken by the relevant inspector rather than needing to be referred to the Secretary of State).

⁃ No single body administering the process (DfT National Transport Casework Team vs Planning Inspectorate rights of way section).

In relation to both processes I would go further: As long as there are appropriate safeguards for those affected and with suitable requirements as to consultation and publicity, surely a local planning authority, at the same time as determining any planning application for development, should be able to approve any highways closures that are required in order for that development to be carried out? Otherwise, the issues are artificially divided, in a way that is particularly confusing for objectors, between two processes (planning and stopping up) which still have to run largely one after the other?

How do I love thee (sections 247 and 257)? Let me count the ways (not).

Simon Ricketts, 15 February 2020

Personal views, et cetera