This week we represented Highways England in the first ever virtual Development Consent Order (DCO) hearings, on the A38 Derby Junctions scheme. They were held by the Planning Inspectorate following the first ever Examination extension which was put in place because of Covid-19. In this guest post, my colleague Hannah Mannion summarises our experience.
The hearings were the 3rd round of DCO hearings which were originally scheduled for mid-March. They covered compulsory acquisition, traffic and transport, climate change, policy and the DCO itself. There were three back to back sessions on Tuesday and two on Wednesday, each lasting between 60-150 minutes.
Before the hearings took place, the Planning Inspectorate provided a lot of up front information about how they were going to run the hearings and ensured that all parties that had registered to attend were able to do so. There was a clear focus on ensuring that participants understood how the technology worked. If anyone dropped out (which did happen during the first hearing) it was assumed that this was for technical reasons and participants were encouraged to re-join either, again, through the virtual conferencing service or on the phone. If anyone dropped off the hearing the Examining Authority checked whether the other parties were happy to proceed.
There was generally positive feedback from those involved and we think it is likely that we will see more of these remote hearings for other schemes, especially for hearings later on in the DCO process, where the issues have been narrowed down and there are a few specific points that need further discussion. It also allows for greater participation from other parties and stakeholders who do not have the time or resource to join in person.
Additional hearing sessions had been reserved on the A38 Scheme in case issues spilled over from the initial hearings but these were cancelled by the Examining Authority as all matters were covered.
There are two deadlines remaining on the A38 scheme and the Examination is listed to close on 8 September. However, with the last deadline on 25 June, the Examining Authority said it is likely the Examination will close earlier possibly at the beginning of July.