South Oxford Local Plan Virtual EiP – a first view of the new ‘normal’

This week we have been representing Hallam Land Management at the virtual South Oxfordshire Local Plan Examination in Public (EiP), the first event of its kind. The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) has already expressed that similar virtual events are here to stay for the foreseeable and has recently announced the virtual resumption of a number of other EiPs as well as launching a new guide on how to participate in virtual events.

All those involved must be commended for how smoothly the South Oxfordshire proceedings have run thus far. But how does it compare to the old ‘normal’? We have found:

• A greater reliance on the spoken word – the format of proceedings only allows the current speaker along with the Inspector to be on the screen at any one time. The reaction of other participants is now only gleaned from their direct response rather than from immediate facial expressions across the Town Hall folding table. Similarly, varying degrees of internet quality for video streaming leads to some participants being blurrier than others making any body language or facial reaction less important than it once might have been.

• One chance to respond – the nature of proceedings limits the opportunity for cross table debate and unless invited participants are given one chance to respond to the questions on the agenda. The consequence, generally speaking, is more direct and concise responses to questions raised – a welcomed outcome by many Inspectors we suspect.

• A retention of standards – never before has there been the opportunity to ditch the full suit and present at a Local Plan EiP in a shorts, shirt and tie combo but all, rightly, have resisted the temptation. There are big issues at stake and all contributors have respected this. The limit of one participant’s face along with the Inspector’s on the screen at any one-time gifts proceedings with more of a one to one discussion feeling in place of a public presentation. There has been debate about the level of public participation in virtual events vs. physical events but to date the proceedings appear to have facilitated all those wishing and able to take part in the proceedings. Those previously unwilling or unable to present their views in front of a full Town Hall can now do so directly to the Inspector from the comfort of their own home.

• “Are you there? “Can you hear me?” – the new planning catchphrases one must become accustomed to hearing as part of virtual events.

We, broadly speaking, welcome the move towards virtual events and certainly don’t miss early winter mornings lugging boxes of materials to various Town Halls. Virtual Local Plan EiPs have arrived and, provided events continue to be ran just as smoothly as this week, may well continue.

Nick Freer