Tuesday, 12 January 2021

 Virtual Hearings: The Solution?


This week I took part in my first virtual Planning Hearing for a relatively simple case, but with over 20 objectors present most of whom were Councillors and generally wanting to speak. As a consequence, with a site visit, the Hearing lasted two full days.


What was different:


1.     Obviously the use of Zoom technology. This largely worked with only occasional droppings of the signal with some resultant delays. What it did mean though was that everything took longer. And it was much more tiring for the principal participants, as concentrating on a screen in this case for seven hours a day is going to fully test the fittest. 


2.     This must have been particularly the case for the Inspector, as the Planning Inspectorate ran the technology, so any glitches he had to manage. There was case officer support (essential in controlling the access lobby), but overall the Inspector had to manage that aspect. I believe there are suggestions to do away with this technical support. This really does seem like a bridge too far.


3.     There was a much greater equality of the actors. All have the same screen presence, so third parties, especially by being in much greater numbers could more easily dominate the debate. This meant that there could be much greater divergence in discussion from the actual differences between the two main parties, as defined in the Statement of Common Ground.


4.     The virtual approach certainly facilitates much greater public involvement, because of this equality. None Rule 6 parties seem to be able to ask direct questions and not to have to commit to travel and therefore it is less of a burden for them. By the same token though, it was easier for the Inspector to control this participation in a form conducive to the holding of what should be formal events.


5.     It may have just been the preference of this Inspector, but a formal Opening and Closing by each sides planning witness was requested on the day. This increased the need for these two witnesses to act as advocates, as well as expert witnesses. I wasn’t really prepared for that, but on reflection I think this is good thing.   Especially in virtual hearings it helps to try and focus attention on the key issues. Personally, I also found it a good discipline to enhance what one should be doing: namely addressing the overall planning balance.


Signpost to the Planning Inspectorate. 



1.     Preparation as always is key. You need to be even more confident of your whole case and the planning law and policy behind it. And your proofs need to be as short as possible. The Statement of Common Ground is likely to be even more important, so the Hearing can focus on the disputed issues.


2.     In the current Covid climate they are a necessary substitute to keep the planning system moving.


3.     One needs to remember that you are being viewed up close and personal by all the other participants, so good personal habits, as well as not looking as though one is just reading out evidence and really are in command of your case is important.


4.     The event worked better than I thought. There has to be even more emphasis on quality management and succinctness by all the parties. Virtual is definitely more tiring than actual events, so one needs to be even more disciplined to get the key messages over. It also means even greater reliance on experienced Inspectors to control the disparate participants.


5.     I can see the temptation of an under resourced and target failing Inspectorate to continue to hold virtual events. And there is certainly scope for them going forward as a viable alternative to real events. My appeal was not design based, with lots of plans and visuals, which I think will be much harder to properly consider in a virtual hearing as effective screen sharing is tricky. 


6.     Either way my case has taken 14 months from appeal submission to just the Hearing. Hopefully we will get a decision soon!