Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 315 - 339)




  315. Can I welcome you to the final session this morning. Could I ask you to identify yourself, for the record, please?
  (Mr Shepley) I am Chris Shepley, and I am the Chief Planning Inspector.

  316. Do you want to say anything, by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
  (Mr Shepley) I am happy to continue, thank you, Chairman.

Mrs Ellman

  317. What experience does the Planning Inspectorate have of assessing the specific needs of travelling showpeople?
  (Mr Shepley) As you know, from the information we have supplied, there have been about 20 cases in the last three years, and similar numbers of cases going back in previous years, where we have had to make some assessment of the needs of travelling showpeople. The Inspectorate, as a body, relies, of course, on the Circular and the other advice which is issued, it does its best to make sure that the individual inspectors who are taking those cases are aware of all the factors which are involved, and those inspectors will then go out and seek to apply that advice to those circumstances. It is a relatively small amount of experience, 20 cases in three years is a small number, we would have had something like 60,000 cases altogether in those three years, of all kinds, so our experience is slightly limited, but, nonetheless, I think, significant.

  318. Do you feel that you are fully informed of the needs of travelling showpeople?
  (Mr Shepley) I think so, but I think it has to be said that, in each case, in each individual case, the evidence which is put forward on both sides is critical, the needs clearly vary from one place to another, and the issues in each case are very different, one from another. And so, whilst inspectors have the basic knowledge of the Circular and, as I say, the related issues, they need to be informed by the parties at the inquiry of the issues that relate to that particular case, and, I think, generally, they are very well informed at inquiries by both sides.

  319. Is there any specific organisation you would turn to, to get more information, if you felt you needed it?
  (Mr Shepley) No. We would be wary of providing inspectors with, as it were, private information which we might have sought from an individual organisation. The inquiry system is a very open system and the decision will be taken on the basis of the information which is available publicly at the inquiry, or the hearing, or whatever. So we do not provide inspectors with, as it were, privileged information about the needs of travelling showpeople, or anybody else, we allow that to emerge from the evidence which is put forward in the case.

  320. Is Circular 22/91 failing to meet the needs of travelling showpeople?
  (Mr Shepley) It does seem, from reading the evidence and from looking at the casework, that the effectiveness of the Circular has diminished over the years, and it seems almost to be common ground amongst those who have put evidence to the Committee. And so I think, at the least, a reminder to local authorities of the importance of the Circular and what it contains is probably needed.

  321. Why do you think local authorities are not mindful of the advice in the Circular?
  (Mr Shepley) I think, the passage of time, I think, in some cases, a lack of experience of dealing with the problem, it may not have arisen in the area before, and ignorance of the nature of the problem, of the scale of the problem, of the needs of travelling showpeople. I think those reasons, primarily.

Mr Gray

  322. Just a quick supplementary to that; should there not be more guidance in a PPG, of one sort or another, to back up and strengthen?
  (Mr Shepley) Can I make a point here that I need to make generally, which I hope you will recall in everything else I say, and that is that the Planning Inspectorate is not a policy-making organisation, it is the Department that makes policy and we do our best to implement it. And my colleagues in the Department get a bit annoyed when I start talking about what they ought to be doing and how they should be advising Ministers. So I will do it, but I would be grateful if you could bear in mind that it is not—


  323. Wait a minute, the Department then criticises you and your colleagues for being very slow; now, surely, that is circular, is it not? If they made it much clearer in their Policy Guidance, it would be much easier for you to get on with them quickly?
  (Mr Shepley) I do not think guidance can ever be clear enough, but inspectors are well used to operating in, let us say, a fluid situation. To answer your question, there is a danger, first of all, in cluttering PPGs with too much guidance. There has been the suggestion that some reference to travelling showpeople should be included in virtually every PPG, this morning, and I think that probably would not be very helpful, and, in general, I think, there is a feeling, in the Department and beyond the Department, that PPGs are already very complicated and long and difficult and contain too much and really ought to be streamlined. So I think that point perhaps just needs to be put, to counter some of the points that were made earlier. As far as planning inspectors are concerned, I have asked those who have taken cases over the last three years what they thought, and they thought that, from their point of view, the planning inspector's point of view, the guidance is actually quite good, better than it is in some areas, they understood the Circular well, they felt that the criteria that they needed to take into account were fairly clear, and they were reasonably happy. There will certainly be no problem with it being strengthened, in some of the ways that Mr Baseley just mentioned, from the Inspectorate's point of view, but I do not feel that we see this as a huge problem at the moment.

Mr Donohoe

  324. Why is it that the appeals against refusals of planning applications are twice as successful with showpeople?
  (Mr Shepley) I think there are a number of possible reasons, I do not think anybody actually knows, and I think, again, I have to say, it is quite a small sample of cases, so it is dangerous to draw too many conclusions. But I think, first of all, the fact that the Circular is not so well known as maybe it should be, and we have talked about that already. Secondly, the fact that these are clearly controversial cases. And that there is always a balance. And, in answer to a question that I think Mr Gray asked, it is possible to find good reasons, if local authorities seek to do so, or feel inclined to do so, or are under pressure from their local residents, or Members of Parliament.

  325. But is it not the case that it is one of these things that is easier to pass on to you than for them, themselves, to take a positive decision; that surely is the basis of it?
  (Mr Shepley) I am always wary about making that accusation, to be honest, Mr Donohoe. I do not mean to be evasive here, but I think local authorities do that less often than is generally thought; because, running an appeal, the cost of running an appeal, particularly if there is a danger of having costs awarded against you, the time, and so on, involved, is not a straightforward thing for a local authority. But, having said that, where there is a difficult balance to be struck, and where it is not difficult to find reasons for refusal, I think it may well be the case, as is obviously,—

  326. But do you believe that, because of that and because of the evidence that is there, the hard facts that are there, these decisions should be taken on a more regional basis than perhaps they are at present?
  (Mr Shepley) Can I finish answering the previous question, I am sorry, because I just wanted to say that I think there are two or three other possible reasons, one of which I think is an increasingly severe shortage of land, and one of which, a colleague of mine suggested, one of the inspectors suggested, when I asked about this point, was that sometimes a better case could be made by showmen at the earlier stage. Showmen tend to make a very good case at the appeal stage, but at the stage of dealing with the local planning authority, this inspector thought, the evidence which had been brought forward by the showmen was not as good as it might have been. And so I think the level of liaison between showmen and local authorities needs to be improved. I have finished on that, and I will move on to your other question, unless you have a supplementary.

Mrs Dunwoody

  327. But, almost by definition, Mr Shepley, these people are small business people, at the local level, they are not going to come with their planning consultant, I must be careful how I phrase this, but they are not going to have access to the very highly paid adviser who is going to present their case in the best possible light. They are going to come with what they think is a normal, straightforward business case, they are going to say, "We have a tradition of being in this area, we know that this is the way we have always operated, there hasn't been a problem in the past, we now want to do this in the future." So it is not really surprising if the gap between their initial evidence and the final evidence is great, because in the interim they will have been forced to spend a lot of money and come up with a different case. That must be the same argument that could be used against, I do not know, a scrap metal dealer, or a motorbike firm, that it has got a problem with a yard, surely?
  (Mr Shepley) Yes, I do not disagree with a word of that, I think that is absolutely right.

  328. So, therefore, it is not a question of simply the Showmen's Guild preparing things differently, it must be that, at some point, if the local authority was told, "There are going to be special concessions which could apply to this instance, for these reasons," and you yourself said that guidance can never be too clear, you would do away with a lot of the appeals?
  (Mr Shepley) Perhaps I can try to explain what I was saying. The issue, usually, in these cases, is to do with `very special circumstances', and the balance between those special circumstances and the harm that might be done by the developments, and so on. Now, when this comes to the appeal level, the inspector will have, usually, a great deal of information about the special circumstances, whether the family is related to the area, how many sites there are in the area, what the shortages are, and so on. If that information has not been available to the local authority, probably for the very good reasons which you describe, then it is less likely that the local authority is going to see the harm as being outweighed by the special circumstances. That is what I am trying to say, and I think that is just the facts of life in the way the system operates, that an inspector said to me that he thought this had happened, in some cases.

Mr Donohoe

  329. If I can draw a parallel between this and what I knew as an experience in terms of the closure of schools, in an area; where a local authority has got a small, geographical area, it is very much more difficult in these circumstances to close schools, because of the amount of representation that comes from the local people, so they bring in councillors from other parts to take the decision. Would it not be better, in that the emphasis that you are putting on is wrong, in that respect, as far as this is concerned, that it is down to the fact that the local authorities are far too small in themselves to be taking these decisions, and that they then pass it to you, and in order to safeguard you against having that number of cases that you do have, that you have to overturn, that it would be better for there to be a bigger area where the development plans are on a regional basis and not so much on a local authority basis?
  (Mr Shepley) Yes. This brings us back to your previous question, which I was not trying to avoid at all. I think there is a case for that. In several of the decision letters there is a reference, in the Wigan case, I think, in the Thurrock case, by the local authority to the failure of surrounding local authorities to provide sites, and that is a difficult issue for the inspector, he, or she, is unlikely to have very much evidence about that. How can this be dealt with at a regional level; again, one is wary, the Department, I am sure, would be wary, of introducing yet more working parties and processes into the planning system, which is already very complicated, but there are mechanisms which I think could be used as models. For example, there are working parties on aggregates at a regional level, which there have been for some years, which involve local mineral authorities, mineral producers, and so on, discussing the needs for aggregates, the provision of aggregates, where possible sites are, and so on; this has been a long-established part of the planning system. Something like that could be, I am not saying should be but could be, introduced to deal with this issue of travelling showpeople. The last point is, I think there is a real shortage of information here, particularly at the regional level, and this has been touched on already this morning. I think there does need to be a serious improvement in the statistical information available to local authorities and inspectors and the showmen.

Mrs Dunwoody

  330. With respect, who would gather that; because, by definition, the small businessman, in my experience, does not quite understand how their own business relates to what is going on around them, let alone to a much more complicated system, which would be a regional planning acceptance of the need for a number of sites, the definition of its use? Who would gather that information?
  (Mr Shepley) I think there are a number of mechanisms, I suggested one, which would be some sort of regional working party; but, I think, in the end, the information initially has to come from the showmen themselves, they are the only people who have the information.


  331. So you think a census, really, of the needs of regions would be very useful?
  (Mr Shepley) I think a census is slightly more precise than I would think necessary, but a sensible assessment.

Mr Donohoe

  332. So do you see a role, for instance, in the Regional Development Agencies in these circumstances?
  (Mr Shepley) It is possible, yes. That would be escalating it to a slightly higher level, and it could be, indeed, as I think you or Mrs Ellman suggested earlier, part of regional planning guidance. I think that, again, may be elevating it to a higher level and complicating a process which is already difficult; but I think a way can be found through that.

Mr Benn

  333. Coming back to this question of `very special circumstances', in the green belt, what is it, in your experience, that an applicant has to demonstrate, in order to meet that test?
  (Mr Shepley) I think there are two broad areas. The first is need, which includes the relationship of the particular showmen to that area, the fact that traditionally they have lived in or resorted to that area, and so on; and the second is a lack of alternative sites. And I think inspectors expect both of those things, and clearly the second one, to be assessed in a very thorough way.

  334. And across how wide an area does that net have to be cast, in order to demonstrate that there is not an alternative site; and we heard evidence earlier about one case being unsuccessful because Greater London had not been looked at, for instance?
  (Mr Shepley) I think it is quite difficult to generalise about that. I am not aware of the case in Kent, but in the Bromsgrove case, I think, from memory, it is something like 14 local authority areas were surveyed, which seems to me to be quite generous, but the sort of level that you might expect.


  335. You mentioned that your inspectors do not have a lot of examples of these or a lot of experience; is there a case for trying to get sort of a group of one or two inspectors who specialise in these sorts of cases?
  (Mr Shepley) We had a session last week for 14 inspectors, which was organised, I must stress, before we knew that I was going to be here today, as part of a series of courses which we are organising, to try to discuss these issues. I heard what Mr Baseley said about lack of consistency, and that is something that, of course, concerns us and something that we strive to deal with all the time, not just about travelling showpeople but on all issues. It is a very easy accusation to make. I think the difficulty with it is that every case is very different, and when you read, as I have sought to do, the 20 decision letters you can see that in each case there is a very different set of circumstances. I think we would try to keep a reasonable number of planning inspectors, something like 12 or 14 inspectors, involved in these cases, rather than spreading it around the whole of the 300. I think there are dangers in having two or three, on any issue not just on this issue again, because they can become too close to the subject and there could be accusations that they are bringing with them, to a case in Scunthorpe, information which they actually discovered in Leeds, or whatever. So we try to find a balance between spreading the thing around, to ensure that there is no accusation of bias, or carrying of baggage, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, ensuring that there is some consistency between inspectors who have got some specialist knowledge.

  336. Now, looking at the cases that you have done, is it really true that this is a problem in the South East of England and gets less the further you move away from the South East?
  (Mr Shepley) I think I would need to count up to see how many cases were in the South East, you may have done that. I would guess the majority are in the South East, but there have been difficult cases in the North West, too, for example, and in the Midlands; and so I think it might be unwise to draw that conclusion. But most planning problems are more serious in the South East than they are in the rest of the country.

  337. Finally, the award of costs. How do we judge that; is the award of costs clearly an indication that you do not think the local authority has done a very good job?
  (Mr Shepley) No, it is not quite so simple as that. The award of costs really is to do with the local authority, procedurally, having made a mess of things, if you like. In the Warrington case, which you are aware of, I am not sure whether you have seen the costs decisions in the Warrington and Bromsgrove cases, I know you have seen the decision letters, but in the Warrington case there had been a failure, I am trying to remember which is which, Chairman, forgive me for a moment. In one of the cases there had been a failure to consult with the travelling showpeople community when there had been a change of direction in the local authority, and the inspector felt that had there been that consultation the appeal might have been avoided, I think that was the Bromsgrove one.

  338. Yes; that is what we think.
  (Mr Shepley) In the other case, in the Warrington case, the local authority members had not gone with the officers' recommendation, and the inspector felt that really there had not been sufficient reason adduced by the local authority to refuse that planning application, in other words, that their case was very weak. So, in effect, those are procedural reasons, you could describe it as the authority messing things up, if you like. In the other cases where costs were sought, the inspectors all thought that the local authority really had quite a good case and was perfectly reasonable.

Mrs Dunwoody

  339. What is the collective noun for a group of planning inspectors: a mat?
  (Mr Shepley) If you have any ideas, I would be pleased to hear them.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence; it was very helpful. Thank you.

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