Will site visits, hearings and inquiries still take place?
Due to the new guidance on social distancing and remote working, the Planning Inspectorate initially stated that site visits, hearings and inquiries would be cancelled. However, there is very much a push from the Secretary of State to keep the planning system moving notwithstanding the requirements to adapt to new ways of working. The Government now expects all hearings to be conducted virtually and where a virtual hearing is not possible, the expectation is that alternative arrangements will be put “speedily” in place and in accordance with social distancing requirements.
The Planning Inspectorate have been exploring ways of conducting hearings and inquiries remotely using technological means and conducted their first “digital” hearing on 11 May .
The Business and Planning Act 2020, which entered the statute books on 22 July 2020, includes provisions which allow more flexibility in relation to how appeals are determined including an ability for the Secretary of State to decide to adopt a procedure which is a combination of written representations, a hearing and/or an inquiry.
Site visits have re-commenced where it is safe to do so. The Inspectorate is looking at whether a site visit is necessary and has conducted a trial of “virtual site visits” where sites are assessed by means of photographs or video evidence.
The Planning Inspectorate have subsequently been scaling up conducting digital hearings, which also includes holding virtual local plan examination hearings.