The Planning Inspectorate has been hit by a fresh blow after the resignation of the official responsible for operations across the south of England’s growth areas.

Sandra Fryer resigned from her post after three months because of personal tensions with the chief executive of the inspectorate, Katrine Sporle.

Fryer, who was based at the Bristol office, was responsible for handling all appeals against local council planning decisions in the South, East and London regions.

Fryer, who acted as Sporle’s deputy, was also in charge of efforts to solve the recruitment crisis at the quango and had been overseeing public inquiries into the new-look local development frameworks.

Before joining the inspectorate she had worked as the director of sustainable development at Bristol council and was one of a number of senior officials who had been employed by Sporle to streamline the way the agency worked.

Her resignation means that there is no longer a chartered town planner in the top tier of management at the inspectorate. It also comes at a time when the agency is struggling to get on top of the mounting number of appeals and demands generated by the new planning system.

Waiting lists to deal with written representations have fallen but appellants requesting a public inquiry must still wait for up to a year for a hearing.

The inspectorate’s officials have privately expressed concerns about the capacity of the agency to cope with the demands from new planning documents, such as local development frameworks and statements of community involvement.

There are very serious problems at the Planning Inspectorate

Brian Waters

In addition, the organisation is facing up to the fact that a large number of older inspectors are near retirement and their replacements will take years to train.

Brian Waters, vice-president of the Association of Consultant Architects, said Fryer’s resignation was symptomatic of a wider malaise gripping the organisation – see the box, right, for a summary of the problems that have dogged the agency. Waters, who is a partner at architect Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, said: “The problems at the inspectorate are extremely serious.”

He gave credit to the inspectorate for dealing with the backlog of written representations, but said the consequences of concentrating on that issue had been “devastating” for the speed with which hearings were being handled.

He said: “There are very serious problems there, which will be compounded by the demand for inspectors to do development plans.”

He added that the inspectorate needed to function well to ensure that local authorities behaved reasonably towards applicants.

A Planning Inspectorate spokesperson said: “We can confirm that Sandra Fryer is no longer an employee.”

Inspectorate under scrutiny

  • August 2005: The inspectorate warns in its 2004/5 annual report it will have to prioritise appeals or development plans despite some success in tackling its backlog.
  • December 2004: Former planning minister Keith Hill restores the six month deadline for developers to submit appeals in an attempt to cut the backlog.
  • October 2004: ODPM report on the inspectorate shows that the volume of appeals has jumped 21% in a year.
  • February 2004: An Arup report for the government blames council performance targets for dramatic rise in appeals.
  • 2002: The government introduces planning performance targets for councils that give them a financial incentive to refuse applications more quickly.