Back to Normal? The Future of Remote Hearings in Planning Decisions
The public health guidelines associated with the Covid-19 pandemic have had a profound impact on the operations of decision-making organisations within the planning process over the past 12 months. Walton & Co has been involved in many virtual hearings and events which would have otherwise been conducted in-person, including High Court hearings, local plan examinations, and planning appeals.
Now that restrictions are gradually being eased, we examine the current position regarding remote hearings and meetings, and whether any of the interim measures introduced by local authorities, the Planning Inspectorate, are likely to be adopted on a more permanent basis.
Following the introduction of enabling regulations in April 2020, a significant number of local authorities have determined planning applications over the past year by conducting committee meetings remotely. However, these Regulations only apply to meetings held before 7 May 2021, and no primary legislation has been made to extend this deadline.
As such, planning committee meetings in England must now take place in-person, at a single specified geographic location. This position was recently confirmed by the High Court in Hertfordshire County Council & Others v Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. This practice is different in Wales and Scotland, where separate legislation already exists that expressly permits remote meetings.
It remains to be seen whether legislation enabling committee meetings in England to be held remotely will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future. The Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently undertaking a call for evidence in seeking to understand the experience of local authorities of conducting remote meetings, which is due to close on 17 June 2021. The Secretary of State has also previously acknowledged that remote meetings have widened access to local democracy, with the Government’s White Paper also advocating increased use of technology in the planning process where appropriate.
Planning Appeals and Examinations in Public
The Planning Inspectorate has recently issued guidance confirming that it will consider when, and if, in-person public inquiries and hearings can take place following the reaching of Step 4 in the Government’s ‘Roadmap out of Lockdown’ (no earlier than 21 June). However, much of the Inspectorate’s work has significant lead in times, and the expectation is that the majority of appeals will continue to be heard through virtual events for the remainder of the year.
Although the position is yet to be confirmed, recent blog posts issued by the Inspectorate suggest that virtual events will have a permanent role to play in progressing its work going forwards, with further guidance expected to be published later in the year. Feedback from Inspectors on the use of virtual events is reported to have been positive, with the technology noted to have had some benefits over physical events in some instances. However, the Inspectorate also recognises that some matters may not be suitable to conduct virtually, and that it remains important for those with limited access to the internet to continue to be involved with events.
Planning judicial reviews, statutory challenges, and enforcement proceedings are currently required to be managed in accordance with the practices and guidelines issued by the relevant court. Applications are generally expected to be filed electronically, with hearings listed remotely or in-person depending on evidential requirements and the nature of the issues.
The future use of remote court hearings in planning matters once all restrictions have been lifted remains unknown. Although the Courts have clearly embraced technology in enabling the justice system to continue operating, the nature of some hearings (such as jury trials) will likely require in-person attendance. HM Courts and Tribunals Service is currently evaluating the use of remote hearings, with a view to making recommendations for their use in the longer term. This survey is open until 1 June 2021.
Given the way in which all working practices have changed in the past 12 months, there are compelling grounds to suggest that remote hearings have some role to play in planning decision-making going forwards, whether this be through blended events or exclusively virtual proceedings. Our firm’s experience of remote hearings has been positive, and further engagement with the technology across the industry will likely reveal additional opportunities to improve the process.
However, in-person events remain an important part of decision-making, and there will be circumstances in which such methods will be preferable to remote hearings. Further guidance will likely be forthcoming shortly from legislators, the courts service, and the Planning Inspectorate as to their future practices, and how the balance between conducting virtual and in-person events will be struck.
 The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020
  EWHC 1093 (Admin)
 Planning for the Future (April 2020)