The Trend for Virtual Inquiries

The Trend for Virtual Inquiries

During Covid restrictions, PINS sort solutions for for ways to continue reducing their avalanche of Public Rights of Way Inquiries, caused by the rush of Modification Orders to claim historic Footpaths, Restricted Byways, Bridleways and Byway Open to All Traffic before the cut off date of 2026.

Recently, a ‘blended’ inquiry was held in Somerset. In terms of IT and facilities it was a disaster. The Inspector for PINS asked that complaints and feedback were sent to PINS. This was done by most people ‘attending’ either online or at the venue.

After receiving mostly negative feedback PINS responded by suggesting that complaints were passed on to Somerset County Council. This, of course, will achieve very little. Presumably Somerset had done their best within their budget. One man struggled gallantly with the limited resources but could do little to alleviate the endless basic problems of sound, picture and system.

Each separate County Council will have to do the same until suitable directives and solutions are provided from a central higher authority.

Meanwhile ‘victims’ of an already failing PROW system are again disadvantaged with even further ‘Inequality of Arms’.

My own letters to PINS and my Local Council are below.

Letter to PINS

Dear Sir or Madam,
I attended ‘virtually’ the Othery Village Hall, Fore Street, Othery, Somerset, TA7 0QU inquiry. This was a blended inquiry.
Feedback from these sorts of inquiries is urgently needed and I have been informed that the inspector asked for these herself.
The virtual (and some physical) aspects of this inquiry were unacceptable for the following reasons.

  1. Much time wasting was caused trying to adjust microphones and move furniture in order to try to improve sound quality. This failed.
  2. Online evidence and maps could not be viewed properly. Thankfully original copies were available at the ‘physical’ inquiry. Their importance was discovered when the original tithe map was used to dismiss a counter claim….This cannot be done on a colour distorting computer screen. It is also obvious that on line documents are only suitable for those who are on line.
  3. Video of online participants was switched off to try and allow better sound quality. It was easy to be confused as to exactly who was speaking, let alone hear what they were saying.
  4. One Council Rights of Way Officer struggled to deliver the whole IT set up.
  5. This should be done by an independent company or fully qualified expert in IT, sound and online facilities.
  6. Sadly the inquiry venue itself also failed the criteria for Public Inquiry locations. I am told by attendees that the doors were all open, purportedly for ventilation, which, with the noise of traffic and roadworks made it impossible to hear yourself think, never mind hear what anyone else said. Goodness knows what will happen if this is necessary at venues, in the winter months!
  7. Please note that Parliament is now meeting fully, and without masks requirement. The rules for Public Inquiries are no different! It should be noted that a person standing alone at the map table, during the inquiry, was ‘chastised’ by a supporter of the order by loudly requesting that the inspector should instruct that person to put a face mask on! This was embarrassing and insulting for the person concerned. All transmitted online!
  8. If suitable online facilities can be provided as an EXTRA facility to the physical public inquiry, then this is an acceptable option for ‘ordinary’ members of the public who are merely following the proceedures. Anyone crucially involved and needing to attend in person, supporters or objectors and particularly the home owners affected, have the option to do so. At present there are no legal government rules and regulations which prevent this.
  9. NB: PINS should under no circumstances advocate ‘virtual only’ inquiries. Although fully virtual inquiries would achieve a better online sound experience these would be to the severe detriment of other essential requirements such as Examining and taking questions on origional documents and maps. Cross examining users and witnesses face to face, not via a screen.

 Letter to NCC

Dear ( Norfolk County Council)
I have sent feedback to PINS in connection with my attendance at a partially virtual PROW inquiry.( attached below).My experience has reinforced my view that public inquiries should on no account become entirely virtual unless there is specific agreement of ALL parties.
I am content, at the moment, that my own inquiry will be held in Feb 2022 but I am concerned by the statement, already made and minuted, by the Parish Council that ‘if necessary’ ‘ this will be’ a ‘blended’ inquiry. Any decision concerning a change in format of the inquiry (already arranged) should be made, with consultation of all parties, only when and if necessary, in the light of circumstances at the time. There is no definite ‘will be’ about it.
If it is necessary, to consider other arrangements, due to covid restrictions, then I still reserve my right to be heard at a full physical inquiry as and when that again becomes possible. I am prepared to wait however long it is for NCC and PINS, following national legal covid guidelines, to make those arrangements.
I am not prepared for ‘covid’ concerns to become the excuse to hold an online virtual inquiry which is entirely unsuitable for my case and is disadvantageous to me.We have waited eight years for NCC to decide to arrange an inquiry and prove their claim and we are not prepared to be further disadvantaged if NCC or PINS decide that, given further covid restrictions which may arise in the future, they then have an urgent need to rush through cases virtually.

Reply from the Planning Inspectorate

Dear ………

Further to your feedback on the Inquiry the Inspector has asked me to pass these on to relevant people within the Planning Inspectorate.

However, she has also asked me to let you know that as all matters relating to organisation of events have now reverted to the authorities that is where feedback should most properly be made.

Therefore, if you have not done so already, she suggests you may wish to copy your feedback to Somerset County Council.

Kind regards 

(DEFRA Team – Rights of Way)

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