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15/05/2020

PINS to start visiting sites

Words: Laura Edgar

The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) will begin visiting sites again now the government has signalled it can in a written ministerial statement following the easing of lockdown restrictions amid the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Earlier this week, housing secretary Robert Jenrick wrote: “Where site visits are required or necessary, they should be undertaken in line with the government’s guidance on social distancing and safety requirements.

“The Planning Inspectorate will be restarting site visits from mid-May. The government supports the inspectorate’s determination to facilitate site visits. It will expect inspectors to use their judgement in deciding if a site visit is necessary or whether alternative approaches are acceptable, taking account of the particular circumstances.”

If possible, PINS said inspectors would undertake site visits alone, but if not, access needs to be provided by the appellant, it stated. “We will contact the parties directly on how to conduct the site visit safely and adhere to government guidance on physical distancing.”

Currently, around 60 cases are currently proceeding in a pilot that uses photograph or video evidence instead of a site visit. This is subject to the inspector being satisfied that she or he has sufficient information to determine the appeal.

Progress update

The inspectorate said that since mid-March, when the country entered lockdown, it has issued more than 2,000 appeals and other case decisions. A total of 13 local plan letters have been published and nationally significant infrastructure project applications are being progressed.

Appeals are being decided or progressed through written representations without face-to-face evidence; on a pilot basis, without visiting the site; and through holding telephone case conferences.

However, the inspectorate said: “There are still many complex live cases that require a hearing or inquiry to gather evidence and it is our priority to ensure we can progress these as soon as possible.

“Not being able to visit sites and hold public events has clearly had an impact on our ability to deliver at our normal capacity and, consequently, is impacting our ability to produce average appeal handling times. We are currently reviewing how we present these statistics to accurately reflect the inspectorate’s performance in terms of length of time for cases to reach conclusion.”

Digital events

Work to hold digital events – by telephone or videoconferencing – was initially meant to be implemented later this year, but work on this has been brought forward as a result of the coronavirus, particularly for cases where:

  • the inspector may need to ask questions or hear cross-examination for complex issues;
  • there is high level of public interest and a public event needs to be held; and
  • where the legislation governing particular casework requires such an event to be held in given circumstances (e.g. national infrastructure and local plan examinations).

The first fully digital hearing took place on Monday 11 May as a pilot. “We hope that at least a further 20 examinations, hearings and inquiries will follow during May and June. By learning from preceding cases, we aim to scale up digital events to include high-profile and contentious cases in the following months,” the inspectorate explained.

A trial is continuing with two local authorities to hold local plan hearing sessions as digital events. If successful, PINS want to offer this, where possible, for all current examinations.

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