As we approach the end of 2020 but not the end of Covid-19 restrictions, our latest statistical release will give our customers confidence that we are stabilising our casework and managing the older cases impacted by events earlier in the year.
The data shows that we are getting the casework volumes for delivering decisions back onto a more even keel. There has been a short-term impact on our decision times, and we accept that not all our customers will have received a decision as quickly as we would like, but the interventions we have put in place have minimised the impact. Once we’ve reduced the outstanding cases over the next few months we don’t anticipate any long- term effect.
Our records show that we have made over 17,800 appeal decisions in the last 12 months, an average of almost 1,500 per month. The 1,965 decisions made in October are higher than the pre-pandemic levels and the highest in the last 12 months.
We have now completed and submitted recommendation reports for all the National Infrastructure cases which were extended during the initial lockdown and commenced all of those which had a delayed start date. In terms of Local Plan Examinations those hearing sessions which built-up between March and July have nearly all been held. We are very grateful for the support of Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) who have hosted the hearing sessions for all but one of the local plan examinations.
Keeping casework moving
Our current guidance on site visits, hearings, inquiries and events during the Covid-19 pandemic remains unchanged. We have now also updated our guidance on participating in virtual events reflected the changes brought in by the Business and Planning Act 2020 in our procedural guidance. The effort we invested earlier in the year to future proof our services by making use of digital and virtual opportunities has meant we have continued to deal with our full range of cases even during this second period of national lockdown.
Our casework covers the whole of England and Wales and as such we recognise that our customers may be subject to local restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus. In these situations, our Inspectors will adhere to local regulations and restrictions, rescheduling site visits if required.
For the latest information on casework arrangements in Wales please visit GOV.WALES.
We continue to progress and improve our virtual Hearings and Inquiries, including trialling a mix of ‘blended’ virtual and face to face events (pre-the second lockdown). There were 114 Virtual Events during October 2020, with 102 estimated for November. This includes 22 Local Plan hearings between June and October.
In recent weeks we have live streamed some very high profile inquiry events including the Holocaust Memorial Inquiry which saw over 23,000 total viewings of the live proceedings across all the sitting days. This peaked at over 4,500 viewings on the highest-viewed day (figures taken from YouTube analytics). 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.
Our customers have been providing feedback on their virtual event experiences. 88% said that they would describe their experience of virtual events as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ and 95% agreed they would be happy to take part in another virtual event if the need arose. We are closely reviewing suggestions for improvements and considering ways in which we can continue to gather further customer and stakeholder feedback.
2021 and beyond
Looking to next year and beyond we are no clearer than anyone else on what the world will be like, but we hope we will be able to see greater opportunity for some face to face engagements. We believe the investments we’ve made in virtual events are helping us towards a more sustainable future. Our intention has always been to investigate digital and virtual opportunities to deliver our casework, and the global pandemic has accelerated our development and adoption. Despite the strides we have made with holding virtual events, we have also said that this does not signal the end of face to face events. We are continuing to listen to feedback from our customers and stakeholders, evolving a future operating model that captures the best of what we have learnt to date and best meets our customers’ needs and expectations.