It's too soon to declare a virtual future for planning decision-making, by Richard Garlick

The Covid-19 lockdown has forced the government to initiate a massive experiment in digital planning. Procedures that have always relied on physical methods of communication are now being handled online.

Plan-makers can use virtual exhibitions rather than village hall meetings to consult the community. Since April, council planning committees have been able to make decisions in online meeting rooms. By the middle of June, according to housing secretary Robert Jenrick, all appeal hearings and inquiries, local plan examinations and other events run by the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) should be held virtually.

Central and local government have acted quickly to keep planning moving. They have had to balance the risks of quickly bringing in untried methods against the dangers of the system coming to a standstill. Many of the temporary measures may well prove to be beneficial long-term additions to the system. Increasing virtual access to planning decision-making could, for example, open up the process to more people than would be excluded by lack of access to physical events.

But these are untested changes, and it’s important that they are viewed as a necessary experiment rather than the de facto future of the system. Jenrick’s statement that virtual hearings would make the planning system “permanently more accessible and user-friendly” was premature. Not everyone is confident that digital decision-making maintains essential standards of openness and fairness. Some prominent campaign groups have already raised concerns that virtual meetings could deny some people a fair hearing, or even lead to legally unsound decisions. If a decision-maker misses a key section of the argument because of a frail broadband connection, they may not be able to make a robust judgment.

It is very early days for online planning meetings. By the beginning of May, only about a quarter of councils were using online platforms for committee meetings. Jenrick wants all PINS hearings to be conducted virtually by mid-June, but the inspectorate itself says only that it expects to be able to conduct fully digital and hybrid events for “most” cases in “the coming months”.

That’s not to say that the government was wrong to enable vastly increased virtual planning decision-making during the pandemic. Nor that the experiment won’t generate results that will improve the planning system in the long-term. Virtual committee meetings and appeal hearings are the best option we have at the moment. But it’s too soon to say for sure that they should become a permanent mainstay of the system.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning //

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