Graham Stallwood, Director of Operations at the Planning Inspectorate, reflects on the changes we made to keep casework moving during the Covid-19 pandemic, and looks to how we might operate in the future.
Plenty have speculated about the longer term impact of the pandemic on the way we live and work. They all share one thing in common – guesswork, informed by different experiences and assumptions. The thing is, we don’t really know. You can’t always predict how humans will react in a situation. We can speculate, but we won’t really know until we get there.
Take early March last year. Some of my teams were trialling everyone working at home to stress test their ways of working just in case. There were some who said they would never work from home, whatever the situation, not even for a day to give it a go. Look where we are now. It’s been tough but we did it when we had to.
We’ve found ways to adapt
I truly hope some of the changes last, whether it’s more tolerance for a child shouting in the background, a cat walking across the screen or the need just to get out and go for a walk in the middle of the day. We’re better at recognising and tolerating normal everyday life making an appearance in working life.
Necessity has also ended those awkward meetings where some people are in a room and some are virtual. Everyone is now on a level playing field, meetings are more inclusive and the loudest don’t dominate.
How are things going?
In the last 12 months we’ve made over 16,800 decisions and recommendations across all the types of appeals, applications and local plan examinations we handle. That averages at around 1,400 per month or around 67 every working day. That’s fewer than normal but amazing in the context of a pandemic and everything we’ve all had to handle.
In March 2021, we made over 1,600 decisions and in the same month opened virtual hearings and inquiries for 97 cases (there’s a lot more detail about this in our latest statistical release) as well as continuing some from the previous months. Like many across the country, our employees took some time to re-charge and see family and friends over Easter, so we decided fewer in April.
Lockdown 3 was the worst and hardest going of the film trilogy so far. Let’s hope it’s the last. It’s been tough, but we’ve managed to keep casework moving, and lots of it. Compare that to lockdown 1, when we stopped visiting sites to keep our employees and customers safe and postponed our hearings and inquiries. That was before we adapted the way we work to keep our casework moving during the pandemic.
“Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives” was the March 2020 slogan, and that’s what we all did, not knowing how long this would go on for. The aftershocks of lockdown 1 are still being felt. Not visiting sites and holding hearings and inquiries meant we didn’t decide as many cases. These delayed cases blocked the road. New cases kept coming in, but it took time for the roadblock to clear and for cases to speed up. In the meantime, those new cases got delayed by those in front.
I’m proud of what we’ve achieved throughout the pandemic, and lockdown 3 is no different. Like other organisations we’re pulling together and doing our best. It’s not perfect. Many of us not only continue to juggle our work and home responsibilities and boundaries but are also handling the pressures of doing different roles or taking on extra work to help keep things moving as best we can. Some cases haven’t been heard virtually as to do so would unfairly prejudice at least one party. These cases are on hold until we can meet in-person again.
Then there’s the wider improvements to our performance that we were working on. We’d made great progress before the pandemic in catching up with lots of cases and getting ourselves into a great position to speed up decisions. The pandemic distracted us from that but the commitment to improving our core customer experience has not gone away.
With the hope from restrictions easing and the ongoing vaccine roll out, we’ll be focusing on reducing our overall number of open cases and speeding up decisions, particularly enforcement, tree and planning hearing appeals. We’ll also start work on being more consistent in timeliness. None of these are quick fixes, but we know customers want to see big improvements in these areas, and they’re right.
Back to in-person events soon?
“Everything’s getting back to normal” someone said to me the other week. “Maybe” I replied.
“I presume all hearings and inquiries will be in-person after 21 June” someone else said. “I really don’t know yet” I replied.
Schools re-opening to everyone made a real difference for us and our people, as well as children, of course. Thank you, teachers and other school professions everywhere.
But it’s easy to forget that we’ve still got employees working in their kitchens and looking after people. Schools are open, but classes still sometimes need to isolate if someone tests covid-positive and after school care is not available everywhere.
It’s still harder to use our people flexibly with many hotels still closed and travelling long distances less easy. Our work and inspectors are across the country, but the work is not always where the people are.
There are still too many unknowns to say with any certainty what the situation will be at the end of June and what that means for in-person hearings and inquiries. What I do know is that if in-person events were put in the diary now, we would be bombarded with questions.
“Where will it be held? The Council hasn’t confirmed they’re re-opening their offices yet.”
“Will the venue be safe? How can you be sure when you don’t know where it is or what the restrictions will be?”
“What about people who are unhappy about meeting in-person? Will they join virtually?”
“What about people who haven’t had their vaccination?”
It’s still too early to organise in-person hearings and inquiries for after 21 June, as much as I understand why many (including me) want to interact with real people again. We are, though, doing the thinking about how this might work.
We will continue watching carefully as restrictions are hopefully lifted. When there is more certainty, we’ll decide when the time is right to have people meeting as part of our inspectors considering the evidence fairly, openly and impartially in each case.
For that to happen it needs to be:
- lawful and consistent with guidance
- safe for our employees and customers
- a stable environment where we can have confidence they will continue and not be postponed due to changing restrictions, but with virtual as a back-up plan
Oh, and let’s not forget that virtual hearings and inquiries have given us something new for the toolkit. Yes, we all miss working with each other in person and other benefits of working like that. But turning up at the council offices on a Tuesday morning to watch a hearing is only an option for some.
Yes, listening, watching or taking part virtually is not open to all either but it is arguably available to more. And appearing at a hearing or inquiry without having to waste travel time is better for the environment and potentially makes it easier for anyone with caring responsibilities to be an inspector or appear as a witness. We mustn’t forget that and other potential benefits of virtual working in the understandable rush to see each other again.
There will be more from us on how we will use virtual hearings and inquiries in the longer term later in the year.