The inspectorate announced in March that appeal hearings would be postponed after the government imposed social distancing rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Site visits have also been cancelled.
Since then, the inspectorate has stopped its monthly publication of average timescales for determination of appeals. In an update published today, PINS said: “The average timescales have been removed as we have postponed site visits, hearings and inquiries.
“We are looking ways to mitigate this by using technology and other ways to process appeals without risking the wellbeing of appellants, parties to an appeal and our staff.”
Christopher Young QC of No5 Barristers' Chambers noted recent progress to reduce average timescales in the wake of the Rosewell review, but said the coronavirus pandemic “would blow that out of the water because they are not progressing any inquiries at the moment”.
Young said there were questions about the approach adopted by PINS to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
“It’s clearly a very difficult situation but it is a widely held view among many in the planning community that the Planning Inspectorate has not progressed matters expeditiously at all,” he said.
“The time it takes is the time it takes; that should be recorded regardless of the circumstances. If an inquiry is now going to take a year again, then that needs to be recorded.
"You don’t solve the problem by simply removing your timescales. You should keep the timescales and let people judge whether the time taken is reasonable.”
Charles Banner QC of Landmark Chambers said: “A large part of why the statistics are there is to provide accountability and transparency. It’s important that all the stakeholders in the planning system have an opportunity to understand what the effect of the coronavirus crisis is on the timely determination of planning appeals.
“To take that ability away seems to be a retrograde step. I do understand the challenge they are facing, but it seems to me to be a sign of a very overly defensive approach.”
A spokesman for PINS said: “The time to process appeals has been affected due to site visits and other events being postponed as part of the measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As the average handling times published on GOV.UK did not reflect the current situation, we decided to remove the table.
“We are looking ways to mitigate this by using technology and other ways to process appeals without risking the wellbeing of appellants, parties to an appeal and our staff. The first pilot of a virtual hearing is being run next week.”
Barristers have recently called for use of technology to allow appeal inquiries and hearings to continue and to avoid a 'standstill' on major decisions during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Leanne Buckley-Thomson, a barrister at No5 Barristers' Chambers, said site visits, hearings and inquiries could continue in accordance with social distancing regulations as long as reasonable precautions are put in place.
“Obviously, if virtual alternatives are available, then that would be the first port of call,” she said.
“Where they aren’t available, I cannot see why we cannot continue with appropriate social distancing.”