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Tech landscape: The reality of virtual

Words: Simon Wicks

How well is the planning system coping with lockdown? Simon Wicks offers a snapshot of planning’s new reliance on communications technology

Although remote and ‘agile’ working, along with ‘virtual’ processes, have been creeping into the planning system for some years, it’s been a piecemeal evolution. Will we now see that technology can allow the planning system to function entirely remotely or does an inescapable need for direct human contact remain?

Different parts of the system have coped with remote working in different ways, though the same platforms keep coming to the fore. You could be forgiven for thinking that without Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp, the entire system would have hit the rails in late March.

Working from home

This has proved relatively seamless, perhaps because it has been an established option for many. Staff wasted no time turning physical workplaces into virtual ones. Businesses are using either the video platform Zoom or Microsoft Teams to communicate internally and with clients and applicants. Both platforms offer document sharing and virtual events tools.

Skype and teleconferencing systems such as PowWowNow have also been useful, and The Planner is using Google Hangouts. But the surprise app here is WhatsApp – its ubiquity and usability make it almost indispensable.

These platforms also help maintain the many informal contacts that bind a workplace. We’ve heard of 5pm drinks on a Friday, weekly artistic challenges and bingo all conducted using remote technologies.

Council committee meetings

The Coronavirus Act 2020 has given local authorities permission to hold meetings and votes virtually. Councils have adopted a variety of approaches to keep decision-making going. Some have expanded delegated decision-making; others have held virtual or semi-virtual meetings – or a combination of both.

The London Borough of Waltham Forest held its 31 March planning committee meeting with a physical quorum of seven councillors, all socially distanced and provided with a screen, microphone and camera. And 45 applicants, objectors and interested parties took part in the meeting using Microsoft Teams. The council’s head of digital, Paul Neville, remarked on Twitter: “It worked great.”

Legal proceedings

PEBA – the Planning and Environment Bar Association - already had guidelines for remote proceedings so the legal profession adapted quickly. Barristers from two chambers – Kings and No.5 – submitted proposals for using remote technology to keep the appeals service working. PINS has said it is actively considering remote technologies (see below).

Judges have been quick to employ remote methods where proceedings have been relatively straightforward to manage (see ‘The virtual hearing’, right). Kings Chambers also conducted a mock virtual planning inquiry and concluded: “We consider the move to remote appeals, including examination of witnesses, is a practical and viable option in order to maintain casework during the coronavirus restrictions.”

The virtual hearing

Barrister Piers Riley-Smith from Kings Chambers took part in a virtual oral permission hearing for a judicial review in late March. Its seven participants (judge, a senior and junior barrister on each side, a solicitor and the client calling for a review) used Zoom and WhatsApp.

“The judge was on video and audio,” explains Riley-Smith. “Senior barristers had camera and audio, and the audio was only on when they were speaking. So everyone could see the judge and the senior barristers.

“The junior barristers and solicitor didn’t have cameras and their audio was muted. The client was also on mute, unless asked a direct question.”

At the judge’s suggestion, each side had its own WhatsApp group for private communication. “What was really impressive was how OK the judge was with this technology,” says Riley-Smith. “In terms of planning in the courts I don’t think that [complexity] will be an issue because judicial review doesn’t include cross-examination and witnesses. It’s much more of a challenge for planning appeals and hearings.”

Planning appeals

The Planning Inspectorate stopped physical site visits, encouraging parties to agree on virtual site visits where the relevant information could be gathered.

PINS is also encouraging applicants to request written appeals rather than hearings and inquiries, which have been suspended for the time being. On 1 April the inspectorate said it was “exploring” technology that would allow casework that would allow casework to continue “in an open, fair and impartial way." As The Planner went to press there had been no further update.

Public consultation and engagement

Virtual consultation is well established, but engagement professionals caution against relying on a single approach. Much engagement technology requires people to quickly pinpoint problems or express preferences and is designed to be used alongside more thorough forms of consultation, on and offline.

“If you provide methods that make people respond really quickly, you will only ever get really quick answers,” notes Zander Wilson, doctoral trainee in digital civics at Open Lab. “Think about what you are trying to get out of technology before you employ it.”

Mike Conway, director of Camargue Communications, observes: “Communities and their representatives expect to have an opportunity to look the project team in the eye, express their concerns, understand who is behind the proposals and ask their questions directly at a public event. Online consultation must do all it can to maintain that expectation of human contact and connection with the team.”


Covid-19 may prove a boon for conferences, seminars and workshops as organisers rush to conduct events online. The Transport Planning Society, for example, held its annual general meeting virtually and will run its annual Transport Planning Day campaign completely online. Even the RTPI Awards are being conducted online, using a pre-recorded video to be broadcast ‘as live’ on the institute’s YouTube channel on 29 April.

What are we learning?

Organisations are proving adaptable and inventive in using technology to keep processes moving. But planning is finally about the physical shaping and experience of space: construction and site visits, for example, are far less possible in a lockdown.

Moreover, public participation in democratic processes and the transparency and quality of decision-making are a concern in a virtual world, as Sarah Fitzpatrick, head of planning for Norton Rose Fulbright, stresses here on The Planner. 

Remote working tech: How you’re using it

Gillian Nicks, associate director, CBRE: “We’re having weekly sessions using Teams and Zoom and we’re looking to do the same with local planning authorities on pre-applications. Some elements of the planning process still rely on paper so it will be interesting to see how local planning authorities can respond with end-to-end digitisation.”

Meeta Kaur, partner at Town Legal said: “We use WhatsApp because almost all the team already knew it and had used it before, regardless of age or IT ability. It’s great for large group messaging.”

Luke Hilson, design director at Barton Willmore, said: “Communication between team members and clients has increased compared to normal. This may partly be due to ensuring that everyone is getting on OK. However, it may also be that you can catch up with a few people virtually in the same time it would have taken to drive to a meeting and back. It’s increased the speed at which many people were moving towards more agile working.”

Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Image credit | iStock