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Local Plan Examination hearings in a virtual world

With the introduction of social distancing and the need to avoid unnecessary social contacts in accordance with government guidelines, the Planning Inspectorate resolved to conduct hearing sessions online via virtual platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, with the first online hearings taking place in South Oxfordshire in July and August 2020.

Since the South Oxfordshire hearing sessions, the Planning Inspectorate are conducting Examination hearing sessions via virtual platforms and Boyer have had the opportunity to participate in the Examinations for the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead Council and also Ipswich Borough Council. Boyer have represented clients both supporting and objecting to the emerging Local Plans, and in this article we share our observations on this new virtual Examination format.

The Planning Inspectorate have amended their working practices to reflect the change to a virtual platform. Changes to the etiquette of sessions has taken place too, no longer does a participant need to turn their name plate on its end, this has now been replaced by the “raising hand” function which is just as effective and ensures all parties are able to engage in the discussions.

In place of the morning and afternoon hearing session format we were all used to, virtual hearing sessions are limited to 90 minutes, to avoid screen fatigue for all parties. In our experience, the shorter sessions have resulted in more focussed discussions, enabling specific topics to be addressed in each session and ensuring that participants (including the Inspectors), maintain concentration and contribute successfully. We have found the shorter and more focussed approach to the hearing sessions has largely improved the productivity of the sessions and places a greater reliance on representations previously submitted and written hearing statements which provide reasoned justification.

The hearing sessions, broadcast live on YouTube, provide participants and other interested parties such as members of the public the opportunity to easily follow the points of discussion and means those not participating can still engage in the sessions. Using live broadcasts is considered to make sessions more accessible and convenient for observers, who no longer have to travel to the location of the hearing session and commit time to listening and observing the discussions, although it does rely on all participants and observers having access to the internet. It also provides opportunity for participants (including the Inspector) to listen back to the session and seek points of clarity if required, which could be significant for points of consistency or in instances where a legal challenge is to be brought against the plan.

In a similar way to the traditional hearing sessions, participants are afforded the opportunity to join in the discussions and address the Inspectors questions. Due to the nature of the virtual format, a participant can feel as though they are having a 1-on-1 conversation with the Inspector. This may reduce any nervousness that a participant has and we anticipate this will likely lead to greater participation of local residents and community representatives in the hearing sessions, ensuring an inclusive approach is undertaken.

During in person hearing sessions, participants would have the opportunity to confer with other members of their team, be that the Council defending the plan or participants either supporting, or objecting to the plan. Virtual hearings conducted with participants being in separate locations does not provide the same opportunities to confer although dialogue can be maintained through the use of private chat sessions, emails or text messages. Depending on working arrangements and social distance guidelines it may be possible for “teams” to be within the same physical location. This obviously provides an element of benefit for those who choose that approach but does not detract from the hearing session.

A key characteristic of the traditional hearing sessions was the volume of paper and materials that all participants came equipped with. Prior to the pandemic, Planning Inspectors had started to shift towards reducing the level of paperwork and this has been accelerated with the virtual hearing sessions demonstrating how an Examination can operate successfully entirely paperless.

Attending the hearing sessions from a remote location enables all participants to have every piece of documentation at their fingertips. It is now much easier to refer to historic documents, direct the Inspector (and other participants) to the appropriate paragraphs of documentation. This is a much more effective and efficient way of contributing to the hearing sessions, it provides all parties with the same opportunity to access information and ultimately assist the Inspector with their considerations.

Boyer anticipate that virtual hearing sessions will, at least to some extent, be here to stay, even when the pandemic is a distant memory. The virtual format reduces many of the costs of a traditional in-person hearing sessions and provides an efficient way to conduct these important stages of the Examination. It remains to be seen how hearing sessions will be run when social distancing guidelines allow people to meet in larger numbers again. Will it be a fair and robust process if some sessions take place in person and some take place on a virtual platform, how will the Planning Inspectorate ensure consistency in approach and what benefits this may have - we will have to wait and see, but for now the virtual hearings are ensuring that local authorities are making progress with their plans.

It is positive that the Planning Inspectorate have been able to conduct Local Plan Examinations during the pandemic. Programme Officers and Council Officers have ensured that new working practices are easily understood in a positive and meaningful way which ensures the same level of scrutiny is received. There will of course be issues related to access to technology, connection problems and the common phrase of “you are on mute” but the increased efficiency of sessions held through virtual platforms can only be seen as a “sound” and a fundamental part of the “new normal” of the Local Plan process.

We look forward to continuing to actively participate in hearing sessions in the future and working for a range of clients across all sectors.

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