Last week we participated in the first ever virtual Development Consent Order (DCO) hearing. This week we are representing land promoters Wallace Land Investment and Management Limited in the first ever virtual planning inquiry in England and Wales. 

The appeal relates to the non-determination by Braintree District Council of a planning application for a 150-unit residential scheme including 40% affordable housing in Rayne, Braintree, Essex. My colleague Anna Coyle and I set out our thoughts on the initial experience so far.

The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) had come in for some criticism for its slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic, lagging behind the courts in switching to remote formats for hearings and other events. In May PINS announced that it was working towards holding a number of virtual inquiry test cases in June.

In terms of the differences to the normal format, the inquiry timetable has been extended to eight days, with each session hosted on Microsoft Teams, lasting no longer than 90 minutes. A detailed inquiry protocol has been imposed and a PINS case officer is ultimately in control of who is audible and visible. In many respects, however, the inquiry will follow the traditional format, with evidence in chief and cross examination to be heard on most of the key issues. Third parties are able to observe proceedings and the Parish Council and local residents have been invited to participate, with dedicated sessions in which to present their evidence.

Day One on Monday of this week went smoothly. This is in large part thanks to PINS’ preparatory work, with guidance on the format issued in advance and a test run that took place last week. As instructing solicitors, we have seen a greater emphasis on the front loading of the evidence. In addition to topic specific statements of common ground and a Scott Schedule, the Inspector asked for written summary statements on a number of issues to be submitted in advance. There has been a clear focus on ensuring that the Inspector had all of the information that she needs before the inquiry began, so that it can be shared with the public by way of a comprehensive online appeal library on the Council’s website.

So far so good. We look forward to seeing the rest of this pioneering inquiry unfold.