This post was updated on 14 May 2021.
Martin O’Brian is Head of Digital at the Inspectorate. In this blog post he looks at what lessons we have learned during the pandemic from a digital perspective.
There were numerous tweets similar to the above last year and just like many other organisations, coronavirus (COVID-19) has accelerated the digital transformation of the Planning Inspectorate where our use of technology brought the future here faster.
Just over a year ago the Planning Inspectorate became an entirely home-working organisation and the site visits, hearings, inquiries, local plan and national infrastructure examinations we conducted all around the country came to an abrupt halt due to the lockdown restrictions.
The move to homeworking went relatively smoothly – provided our people had a good internet connection, they could already access our business applications in the cloud and use video conferencing tools and the modern laptops we’d given everyone the year before to carry on working with each other from home. We shipped monitors to our new homeworkers and settled into the “new normal”.
We then had to work out how we could keep our casework moving and particularly how to continue conducting hearings, inquiries and local plan and national infrastructure examinations so that when lockdown was over, we weren’t holding up anything that would help the UK economy recover.
There had been talk of potentially using the new technology that we’d rolled out the year before to hold virtual events but that was as far as it got, and we now had to proceed at pace - indeed the written ministerial statement which followed set-out the government expectations.
To do this, we established a multi-disciplinary team responsible for all areas of delivering an event virtually, and established guiding principles such as:
- virtual events will be run in as fair and robust a way as possible (just like our physical events)
- we’ll consult our users and stakeholders to ensure we meet their needs and legislation (which included local planning authorities, the Planning and Environmental Bar Association (PEBA), National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA), Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and The Law Society)
- we’ll use our existing video conferencing platform (to avoid having to spend time standing up a new platform, as it was certified secure and our people were already familiar with it; only if there was something it couldn’t do we would look at alternative platforms).
In just a few weeks we had made great strides - we ran our very first virtual hearing in May 2020, the first virtual hearing for a national infrastructure project as well as the first virtual inquiry in June, and the first local plan examination in July. As of April 2021 we had held over 700 events.
One of our first local plan examinations had over 4,000 views on YouTube and a high profile inquiry last October saw over 23,000 total viewings of the live proceedings across all the sitting days, peaking at over 4,500 viewings on the highest-viewed day.
Running the inquiry in this way meant that not only could it continue within a COVID-restricted environment but many more people were able to view the event than would have been possible had the inquiry been held face to face. Indeed, participants included a former Prime Minister, television celebrities and even the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Delivering the above in the space of months was a significant achievement for the Planning Inspectorate and something that might have traditionally taken much longer before the pandemic.
What we learnt
We’ve learnt so much from the last year. We’re still learning and engaging with colleagues, stakeholders and customers whose opinions, some in favour, others not, help inform the direction we’ll take on a permanent basis. Some of the notable points include:
- the success of applying technology really is dependent on meeting both the needs of our colleagues and our customers who use our services. We’ve had valuable feedback along the way and continually adapted to ensure each virtual event was successful. For some it has not been an easy transition from the physical way appeals, applications and examinations have previously been run
- having a multi-disciplinary team able to cover the technology, legislation, procedure, practice and similar allowed us to deliver virtual events at pace by having both the subject matter experts and decision makers in one place
- all virtual events are different. From the feedback that we have had so far, conducting events virtually can sometimes help participants feel more at ease (as there aren’t large numbers of people watching them in the room) and evidence can therefore be provided more easily. On the other hand, we’ve had feedback to say that it feels something is lost in virtual events - conversation can be stilted and some of those in attendance can seem less inclined to actively participate.
- virtual events can be more accessible for a wider demographic than would normally be the case. Broadcasting an event enables more people to see it as it is unlikely that all those viewing could have attended in person.
- some parties have told us there can be a more direct and personal connection between inspector and participant at a virtual event – participants speak directly to the inspector instead of addressing the room. However as noted above, that’s not always the case
- a reliable and reasonably fast internet connection is essential for everyone in attendance - we asked all of our people at the Planning Inspectorate to conduct an internet speed test to assess the suitability of their connection for homeworking and for virtual events (and thankfully only 4 of our inspectors had an internet connection speed which would have impacted their ability to conduct virtual events)
- delivery is an effective digital strategy where digital skills, tools and our people are fundamental in delivering digital services - there were, of course, a lot of unknowns at the outset and the concerted effort and determination by all involved to deliver virtual events was key
- virtual meeting fatigue is real. Virtual events can be more tiring which isn’t surprising given the number of news items during the last year. It is essential to ensure regular breaks are incorporated into agendas
- virtual events can take more effort - more time for inspectors to prepare, more involvement from case officers and more digital support (to ensure everyone can join and broadcasts go as planned)
- some events may not be suitable to conduct entirely virtually. There are sections of the community with limited or no access to the internet and we will of course need to ensure those without access are involved in our events
What started as a short-term response to keeping our casework moving during the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated our ambitions to be a more digital and innovative organisation and have demonstrated that they can offer greater opportunity for involvement in the planning system.
Recognition for our efforts has come from a range of stakeholders: We were finalists for 2 RTPI Planning Excellence 2021 Awards, and our colleague Rebecca Phillips has been nominated as a 2021 woman of influence by the Planner magazine for her work on virtual events.
Restrictions are likely to continue for some time while the pandemic continues to limit room capacities and virtual events continue to offer a safe and reliable way to plan events in England for now.
We’ve already collected a huge amount of learning and feedback and how we operate in the future once the public health situation improves and restrictions are eased is being carefully considered as we consult widely on virtual, physical and blended events. We will always uphold our values of Fairness, Openness and Impartiality; ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to take part in the planning process.
Given the above, I think our main learning is that there will now always be some role for virtual events.