Further to our previous blog post on the Rayne appeal, we are pleased to confirm that the first virtual inquiry in England and Wales proceeded according to timetable and closed on schedule. Eighteen Microsoft Teams sessions later, what have we learned? Apart from the relaxed attire of most attendees (with Counsel remaining fully suited), my colleague Anna Coyle and I set out our thoughts on the initial experience so far.

Preparation is key, with an emphasis on the front loading of evidence. A well thought-out working space with good lighting and multiple screens is recommended. Particular attention should be paid to the positioning of video cameras and documents, so as to ensure that speakers are directed towards their camera and microphone (as opposed to staring off to the side). It is particularly important that all participants have the correct documents to hand, either in paper or electronic copy. Our Inspector required each party to submit a list of the documents that they intended to refer to in advance, typically the day before each session.

Visibility within our client team was naturally more limited so we kept in touch behind the scenes using a Whatsapp group for essential messaging and daily debrief video conferences. Our advocate, Richard Moules of Landmark Chambers, could request a short break at any time to take instructions but the virtual medium made it more important than usual to discuss and agree our position on key points in advance.

As is increasingly common, housing land supply was dealt with by way of a round table discussion. The remainder of the sessions took place by way of traditional examination in chief and cross examination. The pace of questioning was on occasion slower than usual, given the protocols in place around no more than one person speaking at a time, but time estimates for evidence were largely adhered to. The technology also afforded opportunities not available in the conventional inquiry format – with part of the evidence in chief given via powerpoint presentation.

The Inspector also ensured the third parties who joined the sessions had the opportunity to ask questions and make submissions if they wished to do so. The opportunity for the public to actively participant and present their evidence virtually at an agreed time is an innovation that could well become a permanent feature in the appeal process.

Whilst sessions were recorded, these were for PINs’ internal use and training. We would suggest that making recordings of the sessions available for public viewing, as has been done with virtual DCO hearings and conventional and virtual hearings in Scotland, would be a real benefit.

There was a detailed session on conditions and planning obligations, with an explanation of each provision for the benefit of third parties. This session was led by the planners on the conditions and us on the s106 agreement. The completed s106 agreement is to be submitted within ten working days of the close of the inquiry, with additional time allowed in light of the current circumstances.

The Inspector is undertaking her site visit this week and her decision is due by the end of July, in accordance with the Rosewell Recommendations – and hopefully earlier.

The planning team at Burges Salmon have now conducted the first virtual hearing and inquiry sessions to have taken place in both Scotland and England, as well as the first DCO hearings.

Our team’s experiences demonstrate that the virtual event is a viable option for planning cases, in relation to DCO and Court hearings and planning appeals. The measures recently introduced in the Business and Planning Bill 2019-2021 will allow PINS to use more than one procedure - written representations, hearings and inquiries - at the same time when dealing with a planning appeal. The accompanying statement from PINS confirms that face-to-face events will resume in the future but also suggests that virtual events may play a role “in the longer term in widening options and access”. We consider that virtual events are here to stay and will be incorporated into a more flexible approach to planning cases. This is a great opportunity for the industry to embrace change and accelerate progress in improving efficiency and public participation in the planning system.