How We Did It: Holding the first ‘virtual’ planning appeal hearing

Collaboration and preparation helped to ensure the Planning Inspectorate’s first virtual appeal hearing ran smoothly and demonstrated potential opportunities in the longer term, Mark Wilding reports.

PROJECT: The Planning Inspectorate’s first ‘virtual’ appeal hearing

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Planning Inspectorate, Cornwall Council, Sutherland Property & Legal Services

On 17 March, the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) announced that all hearings and inquiries were being postponed during the coronavirus pandemic. “At this stage we do not know when they may be able to resume, but it is unlikely to be soon,” it said in a statement.

Amanda Sutherland, planning solicitor at Sutherland Property & Legal Services, was immediately affected by the decision. She was due to represent a client at a hearing the following day, concerning an appeal against Cornwall Council’s decision to refuse plans for a dwelling where occupancy is restricted to agricultural workers in Bude. Sutherland contacted PINS. She recalls asking: “Is there going to be some other way of dealing with this?”

The case became the first to be heard at a “virtual” hearing. Appeal hearings involve the submission of written evidence by parties, followed by an informal roundtable discussion led by the inspector. In the virtual version, participants attend this discussion remotely by video and telephone conferencing rather  than in person. The event was held on 11 May and paved the way for a series of further virtual hearings throughout May and June. With many of the government’s social distancing rules still in place in an effort to manage the coronavirus outbreak, PINS has said it expects digital events will play a part in “most cases” over the next six months.

“We did a lot of preparation to ensure that the virtual hearing was handled in as fair and robust a way as possible,” says Graham Stallwood, director of operations at PINS. He says consultation took place with the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Planning and Environment Bar Association, the National Infrastructure Planning Association and the Law Society, to develop and test the process.

Four days before the hearing took place, all parties took part in a practice run. “We had a few technical problems,” says Sutherland, adding that these were soon resolved. “It just meant that we didn’t have any gremlins on the day.” The hearing took place using the Microsoft Teams videoconferencing platform. Participants were also given the option to take part via telephone. Stallwood says each participant was sent detailed joining instructions in advance and the inspectorate provided an event manager to check people in to the hearing. It ran for three and a half hours and was split into three sessions of around one hour each.

Following the hearing, the appeal was dismissed. All parties agree that the event itself ran smoothly – bar some small teething problems. Stallwood says: “Some background noise seeped into the proceedings and participants were asked to mute their mics when they weren’t talking.”

Louise Wood, service director for planning and sustainable development at Cornwall Council, notes the technology allows documents such as plans to be shared on-screen. But Stallwood says it became clear that such sharing “can be difficult”. Sutherland recalls difficulties displaying a particular plan at one point, adding: “We had to drop back to the old-fashioned way of holding the plan up in paper form so that we could all see.”

Ensuring opportunities for public participation was a key concern for everyone involved. Sutherland says that, in this case, “we didn’t have any local objections”. However, she notes the importance of ensuring that any third parties have an opportunity to submit written representations or appear virtually at hearings – not least to avoid any concerns being raised about the adequacy of public engagement further down the line. 

Wood adds: “We can foresee an issue for third parties with the technology and ensuring those who want to be are fully involved. There will need to be careful consideration of how to operate such hearings where there is a large amount of public interest.” Stallwood expresses hopes that virtual events may even allow the attendance of parties who might not be able to travel to a traditional hearing. “Opportunities in the long run could be greater accessibility, with more people being able to tune in or participate,” he says. Wood adds that virtual appeal hearings have the ability to “widen participation” as well as being “more efficient”.

Virtual hearings now look set to be incorporated into appeal casework – even after social distancing rules are lifted. “In future, face-to-face hearings and inquiries will still be an essential part of our approach,” says Stallwood, adding that PINS will seek to provide a “range of types of events that offer the best value and benefit” for all involved. Wood says virtual hearings create efficiencies in terms of council officer time and costs, while avoiding the need for authorities to find suitable venues for physical events, which “can be difficult". It may also free up time for PINS, she suggests, by reducing travelling hours for inspectors. Sutherland adds: “If we could do that with every hearing, I would be more than happy.”

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