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Pickles' performance and the state we're in

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The communities seretary expects planning departments to meet stiff performance targets, but his own performance on called-in and recovered cases leaves a lot to be desired, says Chris Shepley

Chris ShepleyImagine, if you will, an authority somewhere in the UK. In 2010/11 it was performing well, with 94 per cent of cases being determined within prescribed timetables. However, by 2013/14 (the most recent figures we have) only 65 per cent were meeting the timetables.

The authority gave reasons for this. Of the cases that missed the target in 2013/14, 42 per cent “raised unusually complex issues”, 46 per cent were because of “workload pressures”, and the remainder were delayed by a day “as a result of the need to make minor corrections”.

The usual subsequent procedure is clear. Eric Pickles makes a speech condemning in the most colourful language the inefficiency of the authority concerned, and complaining about the impact on business, the economy, and the future of the human race. There is dark talk of special measures. It is debated at private lunches with the CBI. Various reforms to the planning system are conjured up, bearing little relevance to the issues involved.

None of this has happened in this case. And there’s a simple reason for that. The figures I quote refer to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG ) itself. They refer to the performance of Mr Pickles in dealing with called-in and recovered cases.

And let neither ministers nor anyone else point the finger of blame at civil servants. DCLG has been subject to particularly savage cuts, and beleaguered officials are working senseless hours to try to keep the system afloat.

"Beleaguered officials are working senseless hours to try to keep the system afloat"

One reason for the tardiness of the Picklesian sausage machine is likely to be the increase in the number of cases recovered for decision by Pickles. These are primarily in the areas of housing, gypsies and travellers, and wind farms. Some figures I’ve seen from Renewables UK suggest that the number of English recoveries rose from four in 2010 to 94 in 2014. Housing rose from zero to 35, wind from four to 20, and gypsies and travellers from zero to 27.

This is bad news for at least two reasons. First, it suggests that the secretary of state does not trust his inspectors to make the ‘right’ decisions. Because I know from close experience that his inspectors are admirable and professional people, this implies in turn either that the guidance is unclear, so that inspectors have difficulty in following it; or that the guidance is not unclear, but the decisions that flow from following it are not those that he would prefer to see.

Second (and I’m going to sound a bit like that nice Mr Osborne now), it leads to delay, inefficiency, extra work, a disincentive to investment, and consequent damage to the economy. Renewables UK, just for example, argues that the 56 wind farms (more than two turbines) recovered since 2013 had an investment value of more than £600 million and would support at least 2,000 jobs (90 per cent of those so far determined have been refused, which might please some people, but that’s not the point).

The courts have determined that ministers’ approach to gypsies and travellers is unacceptable for equality reasons (and, incidentally, they’ve given an interesting insight into pressures within the department). The current methodology creates uncertainty and instability in the planning process. Unpredictability means investors and developers in the various affected sectors find it hard to make investment decisions. It seems to me to be contrary to all the government’s oft-stated aims for planning.

I don’t suppose much will change before the election in May. But we need to monitor more closely what is happening, and why, when it comes to recoveries. All of us want efficient and timely planning decisions. Except, it seems, Mr Pickles himself.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

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