The planning sector must continue to harness the many benefits that virtual technology has introduced, even after a return to some kind of post-pandemic normality, says Tetra Tech’s Robin Upton.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, working from home was almost frowned upon, as it was seen as being unproductive with no way of knowing how earnestly colleagues were working. The pandemic has brought about a number of benefits and, after a few initial IT problems, working from home has proven to be just as productive as the office, if not more. Now most traditionally office-based businesses seem to be offering more flexible working arrangements for colleagues, with a mix of home and office-working allowing employees to enjoy an improved work/life balance.
In March 2020 the government introduced powers for councils to hold virtual planning committees, which in my view are preferable to physical meetings. By eliminating travel time to reach the meetings, unproductive time and cost to the client and the physical exhaustion of travelling for numerous hours was cut out, not to mention relieving them of having to sit through hours of debate before their application was discussed. Unfortunately, however, the powers to hold public meetings virtually will expire on 7 May 2021.
Virtual hearing and inquiry appeals have been similarly successful – so much so that the Planning Inspectorate has announced that it aims to make virtual events its standard option for the majority of future events. As they became more familiar with the process, they were able to make gradual improvements to ensure the experience was as user-friendly as possible, such as limiting sessions to one and a half hours with a break between to reduce screen fatigue. Now in the full swing of the virtual process, appeal case officers routinely ensure that all participants are familiar with the virtual technology being used and can pass electronic submissions to the inspector (instead of papers that would be distributed at physical events).
What’s more, the realisation fast dawned on businesses that, by virtue of virtual appeals, they were able to do away with the need and expense of the whole team staying in hotels, as well as other disbursements that could be costly over a week or longer and the strain on families of having to stay away from home for extended periods.
It hasn’t been a completely smooth ride of course. There have been scenarios, for instance, where members of appeal teams have struggled with internet bandwidth issues during inquiries, usually resulting in evidence having to be repeated and several adjournments to resolve these technical issues. Elsewhere, one planning committee was even forced to abandon after a couple of unruly participants hijacked proceedings. But committee administrators are fast finding ways of overcoming these initial teething issues and have now taken on a new role of policing virtual meetings and can quickly exclude such participants from the meetings if required.
Overall, the adoption of these technologies, thanks to which we have been able to continue operating during the pandemic, has been undoubtedly positive. Take, for instance, a recent appeal where an enforcement inquiry required an appeal site visit to internally inspect six occupied student accommodation properties to establish the quality of the accommodation that was disputed between appeal parties. Though the inspector wasn’t able to physically undertake an internal inspection of the properties, a member of the appeal team was able to visit them and provide a virtual site visit using their mobile phone to stream footage. Thankfully, the students were well behaved that morning!
Obviously key to the success of virtual meetings is the standard of the technology being used. Whilst there have been technological hiccups, they are usually resolvable. Key to this is testing equipment prior to an event to ensure it is working and to allow time to resolve any issues in advance. At least we aren’t late for virtual meetings due to traffic jams or public transport delays.
Every cloud has a silver lining and moving forwards I firmly believe we must continue to harness the many benefits that virtual technology has introduced and refrain from reverting to type as a glimpse of normality returns – both to allow us to strike a better work-life balance and be more efficient in the way we work.
Robin Upton is a director for Tetra Tech Planning.