Barristers call for tech options to avoid 'decisions standstill' during coronavirus outbreak

Planning barristers have called for better use of technology to allow appeal inquiries and hearings to continue and to avoid a 'standstill' on major decisions during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

PINS headquarters in Bristol.
PINS headquarters in Bristol.

It has emerged that several inquiries have been postponed as the government has tightened its advice on social contact and travel in the past few days.

Charles Banner QC, of Landmark Chambers, is acting on behalf of an appellant whose inquiry has been postponed, the Whitstable Oyster Company.

He called on the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) to introduce a "written representations plus" model for appeals as a temporary measure, whereby inspectors would identify main issues and hold issue-specific phone or video hearings.

“It is compellingly in the public interest for PINS, the Bar, key stakeholders and representative bodies in the planning industry to work together to find a temporary, technology-based solution to enable major planning appeals and call-ins to continue for so long as in-person meetings are not possible,” said Banner. 

“The alternative is a standstill on a vast array of major development decisions, with massive implications for housing and infrastructure delivery, businesses relying on the planning system.”

Paul Tucker QC, of Kings Chambers, said he is acting in two inquiries that have been adjourned due to witnesses self-isolating. 

Tucker said he would support increased use of technology such as video or telephone conferencing to ensure appeal inquiries can continue. 

“Most council officers have facilities for live video streaming that can be used to create a virtual public forum,” he said. “It strikes me we should take advantage of that both for examinations and public inquiries.”

Tucker added that he believed witnesses could also be cross-examined remotely via video link. 

However, he opposed any move towards a ‘written representations-plus’ model. “It removes the level of scrutiny you need for public inquiries and hearings,” he said

Banner said: “Clearly it won’t provide as much scrutiny as an in-person inquiry where you have detailed cross-examination. But we’re in desperate times, frankly. 

“The government is talking about 18 months of this suppression policy. It’s either the wheels stopping or some kind of contingency measure. It’s clearly second best and can only be temporary but is it better than nothing? I think the answer is clearly yes.”

Paul Brown QC, chairman at the Planning and Environment Bar Association (PEBA), said: “In a situation where coronavirus is likely to be with us for some time, PEBA is keen to support the Planning Inspectorate in keeping appeals on track wherever possible.  

“In principle, many hearings could be dealt with by video-conferencing, and there is scope for aspects of some inquiries to be dealt with in the same way, but the extent to which this is possible will vary from case to case, depending on the levels of public interest and the need for live evidence and cross-examination.  

“It is important that to ensure that the overall decision-making process is robust, and that proceedings remain accessible to the public.”

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