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Legal landscape: The importance of keeping evidence proportionate in plan making

Backlog being addressed / Shutterstock_204114727

In the second of three pieces looking at how local plan making can be improved, Wayne Beglan argues for stricter rules around the supply of evidence to local plan compilation and examination to keep the focus clear and manageable

As I mentioned in my previous article, we live in a plan-led system. The development plan should be the starting point for every planning application. The government expects plans to be up to date and to be (at least) considered for review every five years. It is therefore of central importance for the success of the system that new local plans can be produced without Herculean effort or years of delay. Key to this is approaching the tests of soundness in a sufficient, but pragmatic way; and ensuring that the evidence base supporting the plan, and, critically, any evidence testing it, is proportionate. Such an approach has the added virtue of furthering the government’s localism agenda. With many plans coming forward it is an opportune time to consider how the examination process might be improved.

The presently huge burdens upon authorities stem from four main sources. First, the level of often repetitious consultation involved in submitting a plan. Second, assembling the evidence base for the plan. Third, assessing voluminous representations supported by expert material relating to omission sites. Fourth, the examination process itself. This article considers the latter two.

There is a case for much greater restriction of the length and volume of materials submitted by objectors into an examination, both at representation and hearing stage. The utility of such material to the examination should be seen through the colloquial, but often used and effective, inspector’s test of the 'showstopper'; twinned with the fact that an authority submits a plan it considers to be sound. How does the representation truly demonstrate that the submitted plan is not just imperfect, but unsound (thus requiring main modifications)? Issues that are not truly likely to stop the show are political ones – for consideration before or after the examination.

"Restricting material to more manageable limits would provide many substantial benefits. It would make filtering of the truly important points more straightforward for all parties including the inspector"

Points of a 'showstopper' nature can normally be made without extensive supporting evidence; but instead concentrating, as they should, on any critique of the evidence base supporting the plan, the overall strategy, the text of the plan itself, and the application of national guidance to it. Inspectors typically seek to impose word limits on hearing statements, but these are routinely breached by the simple expedient of adding appendices to the statement.

Restricting material to more manageable limits would provide many substantial benefits. It would make filtering of the truly important points more straightforward for all parties including the inspector; thus providing a better focus for oral hearing sessions and the examination overall. It would facilitate more detailed inspector feedback early on in the process, so informing and potentially shortening the rest of the examination. Officers can report succinctly to members, so that, if appropriate, early support can be given to proposed changes to the plan. Potential participants can more easily see where there is overlap between viewpoints, and need not attend to repeat points already made. The surplus material so currently prevalent at examination may be lessened or removed. It would allow lay objectors and members of the public to follow the proceedings better, which at present must be in serious doubt from time to time.

One simple improvement is for word limits to be much more strictly enforced, with an embargo on appendices. This should apply both at the representation and hearing stages. Where, due to individual subject nature, there is a good case for relaxing one or both rules, the inspector should consider that issue by issue and give more prescriptive guidance on what they are likely to be assisted by in any hearing material. In the (perhaps unlikely) case where the inspector considers more information is required after the hearing session, that can be obtained from the plan-making authority or others, with an inspector-led consultation if necessary.

The current burdens are unworkable in a world of frequent review. Change is required. The primary legislation and guidance should be amended accordingly.

Wayne Beglan of Cornerstone Barristers specialises in judicial review, planning, regeneration and housing

Photo | Shutterstock

Read Wayne’s further thoughts on improving local planning



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