As part of the Business and Planning Bill 2019-21 the Government announced new measures that will grant the Planning Inspectorate greater flexibility in decision making. Inspectors will be allowed to employ more than one procedure at the same time when determining an appeal, choosing from written representations, hearings and inquiries.
Currently, Section 319A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, only allows Planning Inspectors (PINS) to switch between procedures, not to employ more than one at the same time on the same case. The proposed change, which would be permanent, would speed up the decision-making process for planning appeals. The change would apply to all standard planning and enforcement appeals, listed building consent appeals and hazardous substance appeals.
Despite the difficulties, PINS have successfully delivered 3,500 decisions since the start of the lockdown, down 37.5% on decision numbers in normal circumstances. Where possible they have successfully carried out several virtual events including decisions on three National Infrastructure projects, three inquiries and one local plan hearing. A number of cases are programmed to be progressed through July via virtual events, including the South Oxfordshire Local Plan examination.
Barristers from No 5 Chambers provided a useful insight into their experience of virtual committees through their ‘Planning for Recovery’ webinar series*. Whilst they pointed to the positives, such as the move towards the use of electronic documents, they were not conducted without some technical difficulties.
They explained that prior to the virtual event, participants are invited to attend a technical meeting to test the technology and process, organised by the Local Planning Authority. PINS have not dictated how people participate in the virtual hearings and inquiries, appreciating that it is not always possible for teams to gather in the same place. The PINS case officer is ultimately in control of who is audible and visible. Whilst No 5 were supportive of the new format, they did not think virtual committees will or should be the norm on a permanent basis as the lockdown is relaxed, as the technical difficulties are unavoidable and do disrupt the process.
The Business and Planning Bill is expected to be adopted later this month.