UK: Notes On A Preliminary Meeting

Last Updated: 6 June 2012
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on what was the tenth preliminary meeting to be held so far under the Planning Act regime.

The 'preliminary meeting' is the first (and potentially only) meeting about an application under the Planning Act 2008 regime. It is a meeting about procedure, but it is also where a sense of how the application will be approached by the various parties is established. The nearest equivalent in the town and country planning regime is the pre-inquiry meeting - but since the Planning Act has no scope for an inquiry, it isn't called that. The day after the preliminary meeting, the maximum of six months for examining the application starts.

Last Thursday I attended my second preliminary meeting (PM), but my first as the advocate of the promoter. This was for the first application for harbour facilities under the Planning Act, being made by Able Humber Ports Ltd and took place at Immingham Civic Centre on Humberside. Here is a report of the meeting although I will tactfully avoid mentioning any substantive issues given that the examination of the application is now under way.

In contrast to the other PM I attended, almost all the parties present were statutory consultees rather than people living in the vicinity of the proposed project. Also, if one of the intentions of the regime was to reduce the involvement of the legal profession then that was not realised yesterday, with no fewer than seven parties represented by solicitors or barristers. I would say this, but I don't think that was a bad thing - the meeting was conducted civilly, the points made were all couched in terms relevant to the Planning Act regime, and it was conducted efficiently - it was all over in an hour and 40 minutes. That is not to say that the parties were all in agreement, certainly not, and the next few months will no doubt embody the feeling of 'submarine warfare' described recently by Howard Bassford.

The meeting is not supposed to involve discussion of the merits of the application, and that was by and large adhered to, although occasionally points strayed off the strict issue at hand. E.g. on the timetabling of the publication of questions by the inspectors (160 to date, apparently, gulp), some of those clever lawyers couldn't resist inserting points like 'when compiling the questions, the panel might like to consider including issue x'.

One area that seems to take up a lot of time at preliminary meetings generally (although it didn't take up much time at this one) is a discussion of 'principal issues'. When inviting people to the PM, the panel of examining inspectors publishes a list of what appear to it to be the main issues surrounding the application, having read the application documents and the 'relevant representations'. There is then an agenda item to discuss whether these are accurate at the PM.

This seems to be (a) merely an opportunity for objectors to re-state their objections and (b) pointless - so far, no list of principal issues has been amended as a result of the discussion - indeed examining authorities seem to use some standard text when reporting on the PM, saying there is no need to reissue the list, so they aren't going to. It seems to me that it would be better if the list continued to be published in the invitation to the preliminary meeting, but it was not made an agenda item. There is no legal requirement to have a discussion on it, and it seems a waste of effort, if not an unrealistic raising of expectations, to do so.

Back to last week, and practical considerations. The layout of the room worked well, with separate tables each with three chairs for each of the organisations who turned up, arranged along three sides, two rows deep, with the panel of three examining inspectors on the fourth side, with a few rows of chairs without tables in economy class at the back. The sudden onset of summer rather affected the lighting, with half the parties lit brightly and the other half in deep shadow, but there were none of the sound problems that dogged the Hinkley Point C PM (an ominous crackle when lead examining inspector Robert Upton first spoke was thankfully the only time anything like that happened).

A large screen had been erected to show the draft timetable as it was being discussed, but in fact that probably wasn't necessary as there were plentiful paper copies.

I don't know if this will become established practice, but parties were asked to give not only their name and organisation, but also the reference number they had been allocated when making representations, for recording purposes - don't forget to bring this with you if you attend a future PM. We were also all given little red badges to show that we were entitled to speak.

The discussion of the timetable was well-structured by going through each item in turn. The statutory undertakers' land certification process is being stitched into the main examination more and more and this is likely to become a permanent feature. In terms of advocacy, a certain amount of thinking on one's feet is required as others come up with suggestions to add issues or vary the timetable, but there was nothing too unexpected on Thursday.

Rather than submarine warfare, my feeling is now more akin to sitting in a rollercoaster carriage, starting the ascent up the first hill...

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