Virtual reality

Readers might be aware that the Planning Inspectorate’s latest Procedural Guide now allows for the appeal process to be a hybrid of the inquiry, hearing and written representations procedures. This reflects the greater flexibility provided for in the Business and Planning Act 2020 which contains measures designed to support the economy during the coronavirus pandemic. 

On the subject of increasing flexibility in appeals procedures, we felt a passage from a reporter’s decision on an appeal against the refusal of planning permission for 50 houses in Clackmannanshire (DCS Number 400-028-260) was instructive. He set out in detail how he was able to achieve a virtual site inspection whilst maintaining fairness to the parties. Accordingly, the decision might provide a template which could be utilised in England and Wales, as well as in Scotland. 

This is what he did:

“At the outset of my consideration of the appeal I indicated that I did not require to be accompanied by any party during an inspection of the site and its surroundings. Subsequently however, in view of travel and related restrictions put in place in connection with the covid-19 pandemic, I determined that undertaking a site inspection by virtual means would be appropriate. This was achieved by the appellant’s representative streaming a video in real time while following, on foot, a route around the site and its surroundings that I had defined on a map provided in advance. I had given the appellant, the council and the community council the opportunity to comment on both the approach I intended to adopt for the site inspection and the route I proposed. Each of these parties confirmed their acceptance of the site inspection arrangements. Tests conducted in advance had established the technological practicality of the arrangements proposed, including the availability of a satisfactory mobile phone signal at and around the site to enable video streaming. 

Although, as indicated above, it had initially been my intention that an unaccompanied site inspection would be undertaken, the virtual arrangements required the involvement of the appellant’s representative and his presence at the site. In the interests of transparency and openness I determined that it would be appropriate for representatives of both the council and the community council to participate in the virtual site inspection. On the day, I and each of the participants were able to view the video being streamed from the site. Voice communication was also maintained so that I was able to hear comments and observations from the parties and to direct the appellant’s representative to make adjustment to the route and to take in particular views, as appropriate. On conclusion of the virtual site inspection I was satisfied that this, together with the plans, drawings and photographic imagery contained in material made available in connection with the appeal, provided me with a sufficient understanding and appreciation of the site and its surroundings to enable me to make a proper assessment of the matters relevant to my determination of the appeal.”

Section 5.34 of DCP Online covers the appeal process.