UK's planning culture

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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.

In order to assess the usefulness and relevance of the Planning Inspectorate to spatial planning in England and Wales, it is important to first get an understanding of what is meant by spatial planning. It must be understood 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, undated)

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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 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.

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'.

To understand the role the Planning Inspectorate has to play in spatial planning, it is important to first understand what exactly the Planning Inspectorate is. The Planning Inspectorate is an example of an Executive Agency, which means that 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.” In the case of the Planning Inspectorate it is the DETR and Welsh Assembly for which it is an executive agency. 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 for the purpose of increasing accountability.

The main areas of work for the planning inspectorate 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 is clear that it must have a significant impact on spatial planning in England and Wales.

A particularly relevant case study which highlights the usefulness of the Planning Inspectorate to spatial planning is that of the Knabs Ridge wind farm in Harrogate. Planning permission for eight wind turbines, each measuring 320 feet was refused by Harrogate County Borough Council 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:

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“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.”

This case study highlights how the Planning Inspectorate can be used to force through Regional Spatial Strategy. However, it also highlights one of the points made in by Cullingworth and Nadin over concerns that Human Rights legislation was not being adhered to. It has been suggested that the Inspectorate should be replaced by a system of environmental courts. 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”. As the Inspectorate is a government agency and so not independent it has been argued that it does not meet this requirement. In the context of the Knabs Ridge wind farm, 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).

There has been a lot of debate over the future of the Planning Inspectorate during recent years, and in 2000 an inquiry by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee was conducted, with the outcome being positive. Also in 2000 it was subject to a major review by DETR (which is required to take place every 5 years). The review by the DETR 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.” The recommendations of the report were for: more instant decisions; an increasing need for inspectors to be able to provide specialist knowledge; and the difficulty of being able to keep up with incremental changes to government policy.

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.

Ireland is unique among European countries in that it has an independent third party planning appeals system which is operated by An Bord Pleanála, (the Planning Appeals Board). The appeals board provides an arbitration forum in which any decision made by a planning authority on a planning application can be reviewed at the request of the applicant or another interested party. Another national organisation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was established in 1993, thereby restricting planning consideration to essentially land-use functions.