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Planning Inspectorate to scale up virtual hearings in June

The Planning Inspectorate has unveiled plans to hold at least another 20 hearings and inquiries and an additional 15 hearings for national infrastructure projects in June.

The move follows its first virtual hearing, which was held on 11 May and saw the decision issued on 27 May.

The Planning Inspectorate said it anticipated:

  • arranging 10 planning appeal hearings in June. “We are also working on re-arranging the vast majority of all postponed planning hearings in June to take place as soon as possible in the following months.”
  • arranging 8 postponed inquiries virtually in June, with the remaining ones to be re-arranged at the earliest opportunity.
  • arranging 15 hearings being held across four Nationally Significant Infrastructure projects in June (“and more in July”). All of these are already notified on the respective project webpages for these schemes.
  • One Local Plan hearing to take place via phone conference; one full Local Plan examination to be conducted virtually in July.

“Whilst we are progressing virtual events, this is not the end of face-to-face hearings and inquiries. Face-to-face events will continue to be part of our future once the current situation has passed,” the Planning Inspectorate said.

It added that it had delivered decisions on just under 2,500 cases since lockdown began.

Since 13 May when the restrictions were eased, the Planning Inspectorate has restarted site visits where: (i) the inspector can visit the site safely under current physical distancing guidance; and (ii) the case requires the inspector to visit the site in person in order to progress the case.

“Not being able to visit sites and hold public events until this time has clearly had an impact on our ability to deliver at our normal capacity and, consequently, is still impacting our ability to provide meaningful average appeal handling times to our customers. It will take some time for our service to return to normal and customers are likely to experience a slower service than we would like to provide,” the Planning Inspectorate admitted.

It added that the pandemic had substantially accelerated its work on making better use of technology.

There are two strands to its work. Firstly, cases where site visits may not be necessary and secondly, moving face to face events into a virtual environment.

The Planning Inspectorate said it had been trialling how in some instances it can progress cases without a site visit. “This might include prior approval cases where the issue in dispute relates to the interpretation of the General Permitted Development Order or some enforcement appeals depending on the specific grounds lodged and the nature of the evidence.”

To date 20 decisions have been issued following this process, and others are to follow, it said. “However the choice to go down a ‘no site visit required’ route remains with the inspector being satisfied that she or he has sufficient information to properly determine the appeal.”

In relation to virtual events, the Planning Inspectorate said it had prioritised cases that it had postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are learning from each event with the aim of making virtual events our standard option for the majority of events in future. This approach covers all hearings and inquiries for our different types of casework (including planning appeals, national infrastructure, local plans) that are currently held face to face. Our working definition of virtual includes the use of video technology and phone where necessary,” it said.

“While social distancing measures remain in place, we will seek to run hearings and inquiries virtually in the first instance to keep our customers and employees safe and to minimise the potential for spreading the virus; and ensure that we keep our hearings and inquiries casework moving.”

The Planning Inspectorate said it was confident that it could maintain professional standards and the Franks Principles while running virtual hearings and inquiries.

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