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Planning Inspectorate to hold first fully ‘digital’ hearing next week

The Planning Inspectorate has said its first fully ‘digital’ hearing in England is due to take place next week (11 May).

In its latest update, it also said that it was preparing for additional cases to be heard by digital hearings/inquiries in May/early June “with a view to scaling up digital events further over June/July”.

Other work being carried out includes:

  • The Planning Inspectorate is assessing postponed cases to establish whether they can proceed by digital, traditional or a ‘hybrid’ approach, “in order to re-arrange these in due course accordingly”.
  • A trial of ‘virtual site visits’ is underway involving 13 inspectors.
  • Five local advisory visits have taken place remotely. The Planning Inspectorate said this was “critical for helping Local Planning Authorities to progress local plans and reduce the length of examinations”.

The Planning Inspectorate said: “We must ensure this approach works and maintains the standards of fairness, public access and inclusion for the four main groups involved: the appellant/agent, the Local Planning Authority (LPA), the Inspector and any interested parties such as local communities.

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“Getting this right will provide an improved model which works now and after the current crisis and ensures we continue to issue fair and robust decisions and recommendations.”

It added: “Naturally, there are challenges to overcome such as access considerations and capacity among local planning authority staff who may be stretched during the COVID-19 outbreak.”

The Planning Inspectorate said it was engaging with the Law Society, the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA), the Planning and Environment Bar Association (PEBA), the Planning Officer’s Society and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) on this work.

“We are also learning from the local government experiences of running public digital meetings,” it said.

The Planning Inspectorate said that after the current trials its aim was to:

  • Three months: "Roll out good practice widely both in terms of number of events as well as types of casework covered, with supporting training, templates and communications."
  • Six months: "Develop the capability to conduct fully digital and hybrid events fairly and robustly across all casework areas and for most cases."

The Planning Inspectorate said it was continuing to issue decisions where it could and 1,625 had been issued across all case types since lockdown restrictions started.

But it added: “Not being able to visit sites and hold public events has, however, clearly had an impact on our ability to process cases and the time it is taking to reach a decision.”

The Planning Inspectorate postponed site visits up to the middle of May, as well as most hearing and inquiry physical events where these would otherwise have taken place in May.

It said it would be issuing updated information on arrangements for postponed events “as soon as practicable in line with latest government advice.”

It has however been able to progress cases where:

  • the physical event was concluded prior to lockdown restrictions;
  • no physical event is required to make a decision; or
  • a physical event is still further in the future and preparatory activity can continue (e.g. via telephone case conferences).

The Planning Inspectorate said new cases continued to arrive at normal levels and were being registered and processed as far as possible. As at 23 April, there were 9,591 open cases. In the last three weeks it has seen the number of open cases rise by 337.

Information on the latest casework arrangements in Wales is available here.

The Planning Inspectorate stressed that appeals can still be submitted via its Appeals Casework Portal.

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