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Planning lawyers propose ‘virtual planning inquiries’ to be run from home during coronavirus restrictions

Words: Simon Wicks
Tech to support self-build / iStock-886801360

A group of planning lawyers from two leading chambers has sent a proposal to the Planning Inspectorate, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) for a ‘protocol’ that would keep the planning system functioning during ‘exceptionally difficult and worrying times’.

The “dedicated team” from Kings Chambers and No.5 Barristers’ Chambers is recommending that essential legal processes such that planning appeals and examinations in public can continue using using digital tools.

In particular the proposal, also sent to the Planning and Environment Bar Association, advocates ‘the Virtual Planning Inquiry’ using “video conferencing and document sharing to consider, hear and test evidence in an effective way without compromising public involvement and fairness”.

Writing on LinkedIn, one of the team – Christopher Young QC of No.5 – said: “We found Zoom and various other free video-conferencing facilities allow for all inquiry procedures to continue, even though every participant is sat at home.”

Young said that the team’ ideas had built on a proposal by Charles Banner QC for ‘Written Representations Plus’ as a “temporary contingency measure”. This would see “determination on the basis of WRs plus issue specific phone/video hearings on the main issues identified by the Inspector from the WRs”.

Earlier this week, PINS confirmed the postponement of “all inquiries, hearings and accompanied site visits due to take place over the coming weeks”.Practitioners fear that such postponements will create a backlog of cases that could become difficult to clear when social distancing guidance is loosened.

It could also create costly delays to development processes that could still proceed despite the restrictions in force because of coronavirus.

To find a way around these problems, the Inspectorate said it was exploring whether appeals can be determined through written submissions but will only do so “if the Inspector has and can be provided with all the information and evidence they need to make a properly informed decision, which is fair to all parties”. It also said it had "brought forward work on using technology in hearings, inquiries and examinations we had programmed for later in the year".

In a statement sent to The Planner, the Kings nad No.5 team wrote: “We note that a number of innovative measures have already been used effectively following the Rosewell Review.” 

Bridget Rosewell’s Independent Review of Planning Appeal Inquiries (pdf)  made a number of references to the use of technology to speed up the appeals process, from submission of appeals to final publication of the inspector’s report.

Rosewell argued that greater efficiency and transparent could enter the process through the use of an online portal for appeal submissions, publication of all documents on a online portal, use of transcription technology to speed up report writing and published webcasts of proceedings both as a record of the event and to help future participants prepare for appearances at hearings. PINS adopted 16 of the recommendations, including some relating to use technology.

The Kings and No.5 team argues that Rosewell’s report opens the door for greater use of technology in the planning’s legal processes, and that other technologies can keep these processes running during the coronavirus restrictions. “We note that a number of innovative measures have already been used effectively following the Rosewell Review,” the statement said.

While it has yet to develop its ideas in detail, the team said it believed they “will provide the basis for eventually agreeing a protocol which can be deployed during the coronavirus crisis before normal service is resumed”.

The statement concluded: “We have great confidence that the Planning Bar, working together with the Planning Inspectorate and the MHCLG will be able to finalise an effective protocol in the coming days to see the planning system through this crisis and to ensure that the economic impacts on the planning sector are mitigated as much as possible.”

The ‘virtual planning inquiry’ idea has been warmly received on LinkedIn where it was announced, with one commentator observing: “Have just come off a conference call with 20 parties so I can see this working but, as people have said, you need the visual element to see reactions. This could be a model for planning committee meetings in the future but with public access.”

A number of commentators made additional suggestions for the use of particular technologies to support parts of the hearings process.

A spokesperson for PINS told The Planner: “Our current focus is continuing to progress and decide casework as long as this remains practical and safe for our employees and our customers”.

“We have brought forward work on using technology in hearings, inquiries and examinations we had programmed for later in the year and are grateful that the Planning and Environment Bar Association and other industry stakeholders are already working through options with us at some speed. We are working together towards an approach which achieves open, fair and impartial decisions for all parties in the process, including communities, residents and other third parties.”

Image credit | iStock