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Beginners Guide to Public Planning Inquiries.

Planning is a world where neither the words nor the actions are quite what they seem.

When there is a plane or train crash, there is an inquiry. The facts are examined, research undertaken, experts consulted and a report produced. The aim is to find out what went wrong and try and prevent it going wrong in the future. With planning inquiries, they do things differently. In the wonderful world of property, words can have very different meanings. Here there is definitely no inquiring and precious little planning.

So the planning inquiry that opened in York recently will not be investigating why the developers have chosen to build an access road along the vital drain carved out by the last ice age to drain the hinterland. Nor will questions be asked about how a plan was devised to spill the traffic from 750 houses onto a road that is already deemed to be over capacity. No questions will be asked to shed some light on why the necessary archaeology to investigate a lost battlefield of 1066 was not carried out. All these question might expose the deficiencies of the developer-led ‘planning’ process and maybe lead to some reform but that is not the business of a planning inquiry.

Instead, this ‘inquiry’ will gather all the information that should have been presented to the local authority before it determined the applications. The ‘inquiry’ will run an abbreviated version of the normal planning process, condensing the work of years into a few weeks. This is good news for those who are styled ‘developers’ but bad new for the community.

A planning inquiry removes from the local authority the right to decide an application. The power to decide the planning application is ‘reserved’ instead to the relevant Secretary of State, who is advised by the appointed inspector.

Quite why those supporting the development need all the lawyers to discuss a planning matters is not explained by the Planning Inspectorate except to say that an inquiry is a ‘quasi judicial’ process. The normal planning process at most town halls manages quite well without QCs. Nevertheless, to help keep the process on course, the developers have deployed a strong legal team.

In an ideal world, there would be an equally strong defence team of lawyers and experts to provide a check on the case being presented by the developers. That is the way our system is justice is supposed to work. But just as there is no ‘inquiry’, there is not a lot of ‘public’ about this procedure. This unequal struggle pits the legal teams and experts from an alliance of developers and the local authority against an assortment of residents and small groups plus, of course, the Green Party.

Is it proper that there is no formal representation of the community? Since it was central government that decided to call this inquiry to examine a long list of matters that were deemed to be of public interest, it is strange that no assistance is given to those who can enliven the debate. Even if you choose to dismiss all those opposing the proposed developments as NIMBYs or ‘the usual suspects’, there is a glaring inequity in the process that pits professional planning teams against some pensioners and others taking time off work. Not that one should under-estimate the pensioners. Their long memories have done a magnificent job highlighting the way the housing demand figures have be massaged. It is very stressful. Tragically, one of the community stalwarts collapsed and died after presenting their case.

In the middle sits the poor inspector, all alone without even a note-taker or tape-recorder to assist.

The asymmetry between the two sides is very much a part of the planning process. The developers are allowed to appeal if their application is turned down. That option is not open to objectors.

So, following this logic, it is hardly worthwhile for the local authority to go through the motions of the planning system because if they do turn it down, the developer will appeal. The last figures from the late ODPM indicate that of the 20% of applications that are turned down, 65% are appealed by the applicants.

What makes York doubly interesting is that the city went through all the motions then approved the application - But it was the Secretary of State who called in the plans and ordered the public inquiry. Quite whether this was pre-ordained is known only to the inner brotherhood of planners but to all those who gave up so much of their time to try and make the primary planning process work, the whole process seems very strange especially when a different and much more detailed plan is presented at the inquiry. Why were the details, long requested by opponents, not provided to the planning department? The Inquiry will not be asking.

The local authority is therefore in an odd position with large-scale developments. Turn down the application and the developer will probably appeal with the possible risk of costs and compensation against the authority. Much easier to pass the application and let the inspector play ‘piggy-in-the-middle’. That is what the City of York seems to have done.

It makes a lot of sense for a planning authority to duck its planning responsibilities, especially in a target-driven culture where complex developments can affect their central government grant.

This apparent abuse of process extends to the way planners use the English language. A strange use of words pervades the planning process. The results can be quite amusing. It was a bit of a shock when the very first call at the inquiry was for our ‘statements of appearance’. There was some uneasy shuffling of sandals and tucking in of shirts among the motley collection of opponent. But we needn’t have worried. The inspector was not about to lay down a dress-code which was superfluous for the dark-suited proponents of the developments. All the inspector wanted was to know who we would be calling as witnesses.

Those wanting to take part had to wrestle with the language of inquiries to earn the right to appear at the inquiry. We each had to produce a ‘proof of evidence’. This is supposed to tell everybody what you are going to talk about. But then there are the follow-up rebuttals which are a thinly disguised ploy to introduce more evidence. It is quite a game, actually a bit like playing poker. There is a lot of bluff and the strongest hand does not automatically win the pot. You need a lot of confidence and the looser is always the trees that are transformed into paper.

You can be forgiven for not being able to guess what ‘sequential testing’ has to do with planning. It is at the very heart of this inquiry. The planning process might be more transparent if the words used were a little clearer. The issue at stake in sequential testing is the order in which the many sites should be made available. Should the developers take big chunks of the remaining green land enclosed by the ‘black belt’ of the ring road? Or should the area of the old railway yards right in the heart of the city be developed first to provide thousands of homes?

Planning is also a misnomer for what goes on inside the town-halls. The job of the overworked officials is to administer the complex and conflicting requirements set out in volumes of guidance and try to negotiate something that is acceptable. It works quite well for house extensions although the applicants are forced to jump through many hoops to obtain approval. Of nearly a quarter of a million ‘domestic’ applications only 10% are refused and just 17% of those who are refused permission decide to appeal.

So inquiries don’t inquire and planners don’t plan. The real ‘planning’ is left to commercial developers. They decide where they are going to impose their estates. The local authority simply reacts. A gifted council officer or forceful councillor might achieve something significant for the community in exchange for the grant of planning permission but not very often. The natural career path for any aspiring planner is from the town hall to private practice. Gamekeepers often make good poachers.

The grant of planning permission is an extremely valuable gift from the community to the developer. The community has a right to be heard and to receive some proper compensation for any permission it grants. As with any place where there is a lot of money to be made some unattractive practices have developed. An inquiry is long overdue.

It is vital that something is done very quickly to return planning to the community. In this age of the free market why are planning permissions not sold by tender? It might be an excellent way to reduce the community charges. The promise of all this potential income would encourage the elected officials to release land for development. We could find more land being provided for development. But it would be the community and not the developers who set the agenda.

The community acting through the local authority could work with land-holders to put some proper planning back into the process of urban development since it would be local government that would offer land to meet the local needs. It sounds crazy, but democracy might just work.

June 2006 Chas Jones.

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The author of the content is Charles Jones - fulfordthing@gmail.com   Last updated April 2015

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