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The planning inspectorate

Assess the usefulness and relevance of the Planning Inspectorate to spatial planning in England and Wales. You can use real-life examples to support your case.

The Planning Inspectorate is an example of an Executive Agency, meaning it is an agency which remains part of a government department, "and their staffs are civil servants, but they have a wide range of managerial freedom"(Cullingworth and Nadin, 2006: 49). In the case of the Planning Inspectorate it is the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Welsh Assembly Government for which it is an executive agency (Welsh Assembly Government, 2009). The Planning Inspectorate has a framework of objectives, targets and resources which they must work within. These are agreed by ministers who are accountable to parliament (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2006: 49).

The main areas of work for the Planning Inspectorate as stated by Cullingworth and Nadin (2006: 49) are as follows: determination of planning appeals; enforcement appeals; development plan inquiries; local plan inquiries; high hedge appeals; access appeals; highway inquiries and footpath orders under the Highways, Town and Country Planning, and Wildlife and Countryside Acts; as well as increasing amounts of resources being devoted to environmental matters under the Environmental Protection Act. When you consider how wide its remit is it would suggest that the Planning Inspectorate must have a significant impact on spatial planning in England and Wales.

In order to assess the usefulness and relevance of the Planning Inspectorate to spatial planning in England and Wales however, it is important to understand what is meant by spatial planning. It must be noted that spatial planning covers far more than just land use planning, but also urban, regional and environmental planning. The European Regional/Spatial Planning Charter adopted in 1983 gives the following definition of spatial planning,

"Regional/spatial planning gives geographical expression to the economic, social, cultural and ecological policies of society. It is at the same time a scientific discipline, an administrative technique and a policy developed as an interdisciplinary and comprehensive approach directed towards a balanced regional development and the physical organisation of space according to an overall strategy." (Council of Europe, n.d.)

It has been said that the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 was "a 'paradigm shift' in the UK's planning culture" and that it "heralds the beginning of a sustainable revolution in the UK" (Enabling Projects Ltd, 2007). This is because as is stated by Enabling Projects Ltd (2007) the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 replaced Regional Planning Guidance (RPG) with Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS). The focus of the RSS differs in that under the RPG only factors which were relevant to land use were assessed for planning applications. Under the RSS however sustainable development is a primary consideration in the development of any plan. In Wales the equivalent of the RSS is the Wales Spatial Plan.

The process by which Regional Spatial Strategies are produced is explained by The Planning Inspectorate (n.d.): Regional planning bodies prepare draft Regional Spatial Strategies, which are then submitted to the Secretary of State. These draft strategies are then published and spend at least 12 weeks in public consultation. After the 12 week period a public examination is held in order to debate the proposed RSS. The public examination is overseen by a panel created by the Planning Inspectorate. The panel then prepares a report for the government which details recommendations on how to improve the draft RSS. Proposed changes to the draft RSS are then issued by the government, with any final amendments being made by the Secretary of state, before issuing the final 'Regional Spatial Strategy'. This process shows that the Planning Inspectorate plays a key role in the creation of Regional Spatial Strategy.

Whilst the Planning Inspectorate is supposedly there to give independent advice to the Government, it must be remembered that they are an executive agency of the Government and so the question of its independence must be considered. The question of the Planning Inspectorate's independence has caused some debate. As Cullingworth and Nadin (2006: 50) explain, a major review into the planning inspectorate by the department of the environment, transport and the regions (which is now the DTLR) is required to take place every five years. The review which took place in the year 2000 was generally positive, although "the main problems seemed to be in ensuring consistency and in the relatively small number of cases in which complaints arise where the committee found an apparently high- handed attitude to people querying decisions." (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2006: 50). Cullingworth and Nadin (2006: 50) also referred to suggestions that the Inspectorate should be replaced by a system of environmental courts over concerns that Human Rights legislation was not being adhered to. This is because Human Rights Legislation states that anyone who has had their rights affected should be "entitled to a fair and public hearing...by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law" (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2006: 50). As the Inspectorate is a government agency and so not independent it could be argued that it does not meet this requirement.

Again in the following review five years later the issue of whether the Planning Inspectorate was compatible with human rights legislation came up. The Planning Inspectorate (2004) states that there were concerns that the "Secretary of State ... and the National Assembly for Wales ... have powers to "call in" planning applications or "recover" appeals for their decision. These powers have been criticised by some parties who feel they compromise the independence of the inspectorate in a way which is not consistent with human rights requirements". A suggestion was made to make the inspectorate entirely independent of government, similar to the Irish system. Ireland has a third party appeals system independent from government which is unique in Europe called An Bord Pleanála, (the Planning Appeals Board) (The Irish Planning System: an Overview, n.d.). However, it was felt that there would be no real benefit to copying the Irish system (The Planning Inspectorate, 2004)

A case study which highlights the usefulness of the Planning Inspectorate to spatial planning is that of the Knabs Ridge wind farm in Harrogate. The website for the Harrogate Borough Council (2004), states that planning permission for eight wind turbines, each measuring 320 feet was refused on the grounds that they would have a visual impact on the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty located 50 feet away. There were also concerns from the civil aviation authority that they would interfere with air traffic at Leeds Bradford International Airport. However, NPower, the company behind the proposed wind farm appealed and at a government planning inquiry the decision to refuse planning permission was overturned by the Inspector. The reason for this is best explained by the following paragraph taken from the Inspector's decision letter:

"As is common in planning decisions it is necessary to strike a balance between conflicting interests. In this balance, the need to provide energy from renewable sources, as set out in national policy and the Regional Spatial Strategy carries considerable weight. For this region, and sub-region it is a pressing need, bearing in mind the large scale of the shortfall between current provision and policy based targets. The proposed development would have some harmful effects on the landscape and in other visual respects such as spoiling the view from residential properties. Any adverse impact on aviation, with particular reference to operation at Leeds Bradford International Airport, would be minor, and not such as to justify refusing planning permission. There are concerns with regard to some other effects such as highway safety, but again on the evidence before me these do not justify refusing permission." (Harrogate Borough Council, 2004).

The paragraph taken from the Inspector's letter clearly gives the impression that the most important factor in the decision to allow the wind farm to go ahead was the Regional Spatial Strategy. With regards to the Human Rights concerns mentioned previously, people living nearby who may feel they have had their rights affected by the government's Regional Spatial Strategy only way to appeal it is through an executive agency of the government (the Planning Inspectorate). Occasionally it may be possible to appeal against the decision of the Planning Inspectorate to the High Court. However, in order to be able to do this it must be possible to show that the Inspector has either misinterpreted the law or there is a conflict of interest with the inspector involved (Landmark Chambers, 2009).

The case study of the Knabs Ridge wind farm also brings to mind the issue of NIMBYism. Whilst wind farms or extra housing may be important aspects of Regional Spatial Strategies, they are often met with opposition from people living close to the proposed development. It is in situations like this where the Planning Inspectorate can prove extremely useful to spatial planning.

A good example of this is Little Green Street in North London as described in The Times by Rifkind, H (2009). At the end of this narrow cobbled lane is a brown field site that has planning permission for twenty houses, ten flats and an underground car park. The proposed development has met with a great deal of opposition from locals and even celebrities who are worried about the effect it may have on the character of the street. Through successful lobbying of the council the local residents were initially able to get the planning permission declined, and later the construction methodology declined. However on both occasions the decision was overruled by the Planning Inspectorate. The only hope residents now have of preventing the development is through a high court case. However, as was mentioned before for this to be successful the Inspector would have to have misinterpreted the law.

Whilst this case study may not be directly linked to the London Plan, the London equivalent of a Regional Spatial Strategy (London, 2009), it does illustrate how important the Planning Inspectorate is to planning issues. It could be said that in way when it comes to planning and therefore spatial planning, 'the buck stops' with the Planning Inspectorate.

In conclusion, the Planning Inspectorate is involved in spatial planning from the development of Regional Spatial Strategy, to the planning inquiries which decide if certain aspects of the strategies will go ahead, such as the Knabs Ridge wind farm. It would therefore be difficult to try to put forward a case that the Planning Inspectorate was of little use to spatial planning. The Inspectors have the power to veto any planning application although of course they must follow guidelines, and are ultimately answerable to the Secretary of State or the National Assembly of Wales. Debate over how independent from government the Inspectorate actually is if anything suggests the Inspectorate is even more influential in spatial planning. It would therefore seem that the Planning Inspectorate could be considered to be one of the most relevant and useful aspects of the planning system with regard to spatial planning.

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