Q&A: SITE VISITS FOR NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN EXAMINATIONS (COVID-19)
Tuesday 12th May 2020
In line with the practice of the Planning Inspectorate, we are now recommencing unaccompanied site visits from 13 May 2020, providing the examiner can conduct the visit safely under current physical distancing guidance.
Please Note: This now supersedes the Q&A set out below.
First published 23/04/20 (updated: 01/05/20)
We have received a number of queries around whether it is currently possible to undertake site visits for neighbourhood plan examinations, so we have set out answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.
Are IPe examiners undertaking site visits?
Our present position is that physical site visits cannot generally proceed in view of the government restrictions on travel. Site visits, whilst not a statutory requirement in relation to the examination of a neighbourhood plan, are well established as integral to the assessment of a neighbourhood plan and are referenced as being standard practice in the sector led guidance on neighbourhood plan examinations, 'Guidance to servicer users and examiners' (view HERE, see pages 45-46).
However, it may be possible to undertake a physical site visit where express written authority has been provided by the local planning authority, to the effect that the examiner is a critical worker, required to travel to undertake work that cannot be done from home to enable the delivery of key services operated by the Council to its residents and wider community. This should be assessed on a case by case basis and IPe will assist the authority in producing a risk assessment, which (if to proceed) is likely to need to be signed off at Chief Executive level.
AECOM, in providing support through Locality, is 'pioneering' virtual site visits. Why can't IPe examiners use this model?
The AECOM approach to site visits (more details in the Locality note HERE) involves a practical interactive arrangement utilising Microsoft Teams, where consultants can work in real time virtually 'on location' with qualifying bodies, to assist them in progressing their neighbourhood plans. This is of course quite different to an independently appointed examiner who is working on an entirely impartial basis. If this procedure were adopted for an examination site visit i.e. having an interactive discussion with the examiner walking virtually around the town or village, if would effectively become an 'accompanied' site visit with the qualifying body and the impartiality of the process could be brought into question and be potentially challengeable.
Have you considered whether there is a model to enable IPe examiners to undertake virtual site visits?
We are considering the feasibility of virtual site visits, which might include use of google maps/street view and an impartial video recording made by a member of the community or local planning authority (providing a narrative focused solely on naming the street, location or site), showing key aspects of the designated area, views, landmarks etc. However factors to consider as to the whether this would be an effective approach for a particular plan include the size of the designated area; the complexity of the plan (e.g. extent of sites allocations, Local Green Spaces, Non Designated Heritage Assets etc) and the level of representations and number of contentious matters. Any photographic or video footage used would need to be made available on the local authority and qualifying body's websites and have their agreement to this approach.
In terms of whether the examiner would find this adequate, it is often difficult using these mediums in various street scenes to properly gauge distance, changes in levels, scale, context etc. There are several areas of risk and thus potential challenge, for example that google maps/street view is out of date or that the examiner did not have sufficient visual information for a proper assessment to be made. A qualifying body might be aggrieved if a Local Green Space was deleted (or similarly a landowner/developer whose representations are rejected), based on footage they considered inadequate or misrepresenting the site.
In summary, if a local authority and qualifying body were to make a specific request to an IPe examiner to undertake a virtual site visit, the examiner would be likely to be prepared to give this some consideration (without prejudicing the right to determine a physical site visit is necessary), subject to the nature of the plan and its policies and subject to reviewing any footage that might be made available.
What is the Planning Inspectorate's (PINS) approach to site visits?
PINS is not currently undertaking any physical site visits in relation to its casework. However, PINS has started a trial of virtual site visits to assess whether certain written representations appeals cases can be properly decided on the basis of digital images and the written evidence received. PINS issued its first Section 78 appeal case determination on this basis on 28 April 2020, which you can read HERE
You can also read about PINS approach to digital hearings HERE
Finally, it's worth noting that for the neighbourhood plans currently out to consultation, by the time these consultations have concluded and the plans have been submitted for examination, and the examiner has undertaken his/her initial preparatory work, the lock down restrictions may conceivably have been partially lifted enabling physical site visits to proceed.