The Planning Inspectorate published guidance on 1 April 2020 entitled “How the Planning Inspectorate are working through the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”:
Hearings, inquiries and new appeals
- “Casework events”- namely all site visits, hearings and inquiries in the near future have been postponed. These arrangements will continue while the UK government advice on social distancing remains in place, new arrangements will be made as soon as possible. Planning Inspectorate staff are working from home.
- For planning appeals, rights of way and Commons Act 2006 cases, whilst no site visits, hearings or inquiries are taking place at the moment, the Planning Inspectorate are actively considering whether there are types of cases that can proceed without a site visit, or whether cases can be decided on the basis of written submissions.
- Hearings and preliminary meetings for nationally significant infrastructure projects are postponed, but as the examination process is primarily a written one, in most cases, the Planning Inspectorate say they are expecting to continue to make good progress. They are continuing to consider information submitted to examinations, and encourage interested parties to continue to have relevant discussions and prepare information and written submissions where it is possible and safe to do so.
- For local plans, inspectors will continue where possible to progress the pre- and post-hearing stages of the examination, depending on the stage reached, but there will be delays as local plan hearings are not currently able to take place.
- Submitting appeals and documents: no Planning Inspectorate staff are currently working at the Planning Inspectorate’s Bristol or Cardiff offices until further notice. They request that hard copy appeal forms or evidence are not currently sent to them by post. For new appeals, online submissions should be made via the appeals casework portal.
The Planning Inspectorate say that they recognise the impact the current situation is having on the sector and that they will continue to monitor the situation and adapt as necessary.
It is worth noting that there has been no relaxation of deadlines or timescales so unless otherwise agreed via a PINS case officer there should be no assumption that these do not apply or have been relaxed.
Use of technology to progress appeals
We understand that the Planning Inspectorate are looking into the use of technology that enables them to continue running planning inquiries and hearings online. The 1 April Guidance states:
“We are exploring methods like video conferencing for events. We are working to arrive at a solution that enables casework to continue in an open, fair and impartial way. We want to ensure everyone involved including local communities can participate fairly and that this different way of conducting our work does not undermine confidence in the planning system….We will continue to find innovative ways to allow us to progress case work fairly and robustly.”
Graham Stallwood, Director of Operations at the Planning Inspectorate, said on LinkedIn that PINS have been undertaking tests using technology to progress inquiries, hearings and examinations. He notes the particular challenges in involving communities, residents and other interested parties and in making sure that decision-making is open, fair and impartial. He states that in the coming weeks the intention is to roll out the trial and make it more widely available.
Various sets of Chambers have been quick to put together proposals as to how hearings could proceed remotely, using for example using MS Teams or Zoom. Barristers from Kings Chambers have recorded a remote mock public inquiry and provided an analysis of the pros and cons of the exercise. Meanwhile, proposals from Kings Chambers and No. 5 Chambers were put to the Planning and Environmental Bar Association, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Planning Inspectorate last week.
Clearly, given the wide-reaching effects that the COVID-19 pandemic, the development industry are keen to ensure that its impacts can be minimised. The use of technology to enable remote planning inquiries and hearings, subject to the necessary considerations in terms of security and public accessibility, would seem to be a sensible step to take, and many may hope that the Planning Inspectorate allow technology to be used in this way long after the current crisis is over.