Two plan examinations and an appeal inquiry postponed over coronavirus concerns

Examinations into two local plans plus an appeal inquiry have been postponed due to concerns about the risk of potential coronavirus infections at public gatherings.

PINS headquarters in Bristol.
PINS headquarters in Bristol.

North Hertfordshire council announced on Friday that the examination into its local plan, which had been due to start in Letchworth on Monday, had been pushed back.

And the inspectors overseeing the Chiltern and South Buckinghamshire local plan have sent a letter to participants to inform them that its stage one examination hearings will be postponed. The hearings had been due to take place on six days, beginning tomorrow, and lasting until 26 March. 

Given the "fluid" situation, the Chiltern inspectors Matthew Birkinshaw and David Troy wrote that they cannot commit to a rescheduled date yet. 

They added that they will not be accepting any further written evidence during the pause unless it is specifically requested. 

A spokeswoman for North Herts Council said the decision to postpone the examination had been made by its inspector Stephen Berkeley in "close liaison" with the council. 

The postponement of the North Herts examination followed concerns that many of those, who were due to appear at the examination, are elderly and therefore at heightened risk from the highly infectious virus. 

Councillor Martin Stears-Handscomb, leader of North Herts, said: "Many local residents have been actively involved in our local plan examination and were due to attend or take part next week. 

"We have liaised closely with the inspector and support his decision to postpone the hearings. This is the most appropriate course of action at this time."

In addition, an inspectorate spokesman said that one planning appeal inquiry has been postponed. However, it did not disclose which appeal it related to.

An inspectorate spokesman said: "In response to the spread of Coronavirus – COVID-19, the Planning Inspectorate is  keeping the situation under review and has published advice about attending site visits, inquiries and hearings on its website."

The inspectorate’s advice is that inspectors must consider postponing examinations consulting with the relevant local planning authority, should a "significant number" of examination participants be unable to attend hearings. 

Appeals may also have to be postponed if those representing the local planning authority or the appellant are unable to attend, it added. 

However it said it "may be feasible" for events to continue if technological solutions can be devised to enable this to happen while ensuring that the fairness of the process can be maintained.  

The examination postponement is the latest setback to hit the North Herts local plan process. 

In September 2018, work on the plan was suspended after former housing secretary James Brokenshire imposed a holding direction when the council was on the verge of adopting it. 

Berkeley announced last year that hearings into the plan would be re-opened after expressing concerns that the projections North Herts is using to determine its housing figures are not up to date. 

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