Virtual Reality? Reflections on planning committees and other public meetings moving online

Since the rapid transition to online meetings from the first lockdown in March, Pro Vision has been involved in many virtual meetings, covering planning committees, planning appeals, local plan examinations and parish council meetings.

Local planning authorities scrambled to amend their constitutions to allow online meetings and the Planning Inspectorate soon followed, to ensure that the planning system kept going as the pandemic unfolded.

We were involved in some of the very first online meetings, including Slough Borough Council’s first ever virtual meeting in May, where we won resolution for approval of a scheme of 75 flats on a previously developed employment site in a regeneration area.

While it was important and appreciated that local planning authorities sought to minimise the delay to their planning committee schedules, our experiences of virtual meetings have been mixed.

In one case, the weblink to the planning officer presenting our application was briefly lost during the member’s debate. By the time he returned only a few minutes later, members had concocted and agreed an extra planning condition (regarding parking restrictions, despite the issue being covered in the application already).

In another example, the committee chairman commenced on a vote on our application without having confirmed a recommendation.  The vote was restarted but half of the members had already revealed their position.

We noted that planning officers often struggled to coordinate the member’s debate and keep the focus on material planning issues.  For all participants, virtual meetings make it difficult to read body language and appreciate the atmosphere ‘in the room’.

However, there have also been several positive experiences, where in some LPA areas we have been invited to deliver virtual presentations to Councillors and Committees.  These meetings have been beneficial, enabling us to select the images and plans that we wish to present, and tell the story of the proposal as it was designed to be told, highlighting the benefits of the development and how any impacts are to be mitigated.  Several such meetings have also included a question and answer session between Officers, the committee and us on behalf of the applicant.

We were also heavily involved in one of the first virtual local plan examinations, the Tonbridge and Malling Local Plan.

The two planning Inspectors conducted the examination from their homes, with strict rules for participants.  All verbal contributions were directed through one of the Inspectors, as is the norm. Overall, there were few technological glitches, other than the occasional problems with raising of the virtual hand to request an invitation to speak, and the common phrase of many virtual meetings that “you’re on mute!”.  In some respects, this arrangement gave more focus to the event and cut out distractions such as heckling from members of the public or officer’s scrambling to find examination documents.

We have also experienced our first appeal hearing online in recent weeks, which concluded without any significant glitches, other than an instance of the Officers video links being left open inadvertently during a break, and we have a virtual inquiry lined-up in March in the London Borough of Harrow.

Are virtual meetings here to stay?

Once we return to something like normality, we expect that we will see a rapid return to physical meetings such as public meeting in most cases.  Virtual meetings have enabled the planning system to keep moving during the pandemic, and some events, such as Case Management Conferences for appeals, and application meetings with key stakeholders may continue to be held online to save time and money.  Overall,  as trailed in the Planning White Paper over the summer, we do expect to see greater digitalisation of the planning system including greater use of online communications.  This is likely to include more live streaming of meetings and more online consultation events, rather than the traditional village hall meeting.

Planning Permission obtained for residential development in Hermitage

Pro Vision has achieved full planning permission for four new homes within the former garden of The White Horse Public House in Hermitage on behalf of our client.

The scheme for 2no. two-bedroom, 1no. three-bedroom, and 1no. four-bedroom homes was approved under delegated powers by West Berkshire District Council.  The scheme makes efficient use of land within the Hermitage Settlement Policy Boundary, and enables the reconfiguration of the pub garden and its car park to better appeal to patrons.

Pro Vision Director, Katherine Miles, said: “Naturally our client is thrilled with this result.  This permission maximises the value of a sustainable site with four sensitively designed dwellings which will boost the supply of housing in the village.  In addition, the scheme has the potential to support the viability of the Public House with a refreshed pub garden, car park and play area, which will benefit the local community.”

Designed by Pro Vision architects, the houses are set within a courtyard, separated from the pub by a boundary wall to provide privacy.   The houses will be of traditional construction with the use of brick, render and timber cladding for the walls, and clay roof tiles.

Planning Permission Secured for McVeigh Parker depot extension – West Berkshire

Following a successful planning appeal made by Pro Vision, planning permission has been secured for the expansion of McVeigh Parker’s storage yard at its Head Office depot, based in Bradfield Southend, West Berkshire.

McVeigh Parker is a nationwide supplier of fencing, gates, landscaping, and agricultural products.  Pro Vision were instructed in 2019 to seek permission for the expansion of the yard, which was necessary to enable an increase in storage capacity and to enable the site to continue operating safely with additional parking to serve the growing and diverse range of customers in the area.

Although West Berkshire Council refused the application due to a perceived impact of the proposal on countryside, this decision was successfully overturned on appeal.  In allowing the appeal, the Inspector concurred that the proposal would expand an existing employment site, which is appropriately located, and the development could be undertaken without harm to the countryside.

James Blake, a Chartered Planner at Pro Vision, said:

“We are delighted with the appeal outcome.  This was the first application I worked on when joining Pro Vision and seeing the proposal though to a successful outcome is a great feeling especially as, with our assistance, a well-established rural business can continue to expand on a site it has occupied since 1979”.

Mike McVeigh, of McVeigh Parker said: “It is certainly good news that the Inspector has found in our favour.”

PiP in Practice

Following on from our previous blog[1], about Permission in Principle (PiP) as a fast-track route for securing planning permission for small scale development (up to 9 dwellings), we provide a brief update on how these new style applications have been faring in practice.

Although our experience has been mixed, we have had some positive results with Pip notably the first ever PiP approval in West Berkshire.

On the 28th October 2020 Planning Resource reported that between January and June 2020, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council (BDBC) had refused all the PiP applications it had received. Just days later, three appeal decisions were issued that granted PiP for residential development in the Borough[2].

Each appeal involved a site located outside of the Settlement Policy Boundary, within the countryside, where new housing is generally resisted. However, as the Council could not demonstrate a 5-year housing land supply, the Inspector afforded very limited weight to its housing policies, while finding that they were not entirely consistent with the NPPF.

Despite one site being within the AONB[3] and all three sites being near heritage assets, the Inspector considered that there were no clear reasons for dismissing the appeals.

He concluded that the benefits arising from the new dwellings outweighed any adverse impacts.

In all three cases, the Inspector outlined that “I have no cogent evidence before me of harm arising from the appeal scheme in respect of matters including character and appearance, biodiversity, flooding, highway safety, traffic generation and neighbour living conditions. As this application relates to PIP, I am satisfied that these other matters should be dealt with through the TDC process.

Furthermore, he explained that “The Guidance [NPPG] also confirms that, following a grant of a PIP, the site must receive a grant of Technical Details Consent (TDC) before development can proceed, and that other statutory requirements may apply at this stage, such as those relating to protected species…

These decisions have provided clear guidance regarding detaching the ‘in principle’ matters when determining a PiP application from more detailed considerations at the later TDC stage.

They also clarify the timescales within which technical details must be approved and development implemented.  National guidance makes it clear that specific justification is needed to vary the default 3 year period.  In acknowledging the Council’s suggestion of a one-year permission, having regard to the extent of the housing land supply shortfall[4], alongside the Council’s expectation that the shortfall would be temporary, the Inspector in each of these cases concluded that he had not been provided with cogent evidence to determine that the housing shortfall will be short term and rejected the Council’s approach.

These decisions will undoubtedly improve the prospects for PiP applications  in the future, in Basingstoke and beyond, albeit the specific context of each proposal remains highly relevant.

And PiP is here to stay; in August 2020, Central Government consulted on proposals to extend the PiP regime[5], including extending PiP to allow for schemes of up to 150 dwellings.

If you would like to know more about these issues or you want to discuss how these changes might affect a specific project, please contact us on: 01794 368 698 or [email protected]

[1] Click Here for Previous article


PD and Space Standards

In September 2020, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced that all new homes delivered through Permitted Development Rights (PDR) will have to meet the minimum space standards, as set out currently in the Nationally Described Space Standards (NDSS). The Government has recently advised Parliament that this change is expected to come into effect on the 6th April 2021.

The minimum space standards will ensure that new homes delivered through PDR start at 37 sqm. for a new one-bedroom flat with a shower room (or 39 sqm. with a bathroom). The NDSS are set out below:


It is anticipated that there will be a transition period with the new rules. Most notably, it is likely that there will be no requirement to meet the minimum space standards where prior approval is granted, confirmed as not required or granted by default prior to the 6th April 2021, or where a permitted development scheme has been submitted to the Local Planning Authority for prior approval before the 6th April 2021.

This further change by the Government is a response to opinion that many new homes being delivered through PDR – including offices to residential (Class O) and agricultural buildings to residential (Class Q) – were of poor quality, with cramped accommodation. It follows previous Government regulations that came into effect in August 2020, which requires new homes created by PDR to provide adequate natural lighting in habitable rooms.

If you would like to know more about these issues or you want to discuss how these changes might affect a specific project, please contact us on: 01794 368 698 or [email protected]

2021 set to be a busy year for Local Plans

Plan making is in a state of flux with radical proposals to move to a more zonal based system put forward in the Planning for the Future White Paper published in August, labelled as the most significant change to the planning system since its inception in the 1940s.

Consultation on the government’s proposals has now closed and we wait with interest to see how the government responds.

Changes proposed in the White Paper include setting a 30-month target for preparation and adoption of Plans (some have been taking well over five years); overhauling sustainability appraisal, and the Duty to Cooperate, an issue that has caused significant difficulties for many Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). For example, Tonbridge & Malling in recent months where we (amongst others) have been challenging the Council’s compliance with the duty and the Inspectors have identified failings and have halted the examination.

Winchester City Council (WCC) anticipates that government changes to the planning system (if adopted) could be rolled out by 2022/23, ahead of their own Local Plan adoption.  WCC is putting itself forward as a pilot authority for the new way of preparing local plans.

Meanwhile, although some authorities like Winchester have decided to wait for further direction from the government (we understand from a recent Agent’s forum that Test Valley Borough Council is another), local plan work continues in many areas, with all LPAs expected to have an up-to-date adopted plan by the end of 2023, or risk intervention.

East Hampshire District Council has just this month approved to amend its approach to its emerging new Local Plan to respond to the anticipated changes arising from the White Paper.  This includes extending the plan period and identifying the need for at least another strategic site allocation.

We are actively involved in a number of live local plan consultations, promoting client interests,  including:

  • West Berkshire Local Plan Review (Regulation 18) – deadline 5th February;
  • Wiltshire Council (Regulation 18) – deadline 9th March;
  • Dorset Council (Regulation 18) – deadline 15th March.

(Local plan deadlines are subject to change, so please check with us for the latest position).

If you would like to know more about these issues or you want to discuss how these changes might affect a specific project, please contact us on: 01794 368 698 or [email protected]

Congratulations to our newly Chartered Town Planner – James Blake

Congratulations to James Blake, who became a Chartered Member of the Royal Town Planning Institute at the end of 2020.

James Blake, MRTPI said: “Becoming a Chartered Town Planner is the culmination of over five years’ worth of studying and learning, both at university and in two diverse planning roles. I am really proud to have achieved this and I am very much looking forward to continuing to progress in my Planning career, as well as keep building my knowledge, expertise and experience so I can help others.”

Draft Building Safety Bill and new energy efficiency standards

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017 the Government has introduced a draft Building Safety Bill. The Bill proposes to create a new Building Safety Regulator with increased powers to manage the Building Control process and impose sanctions.

It also proposes three strict Gateways throughout the design and construction of each high-rise building (defined as a building over 18m to the upper storey), firstly at planning, then at building control and finally at completion. Prescribed information will be required at each stage, including from the developers, to maintain a ‘golden-thread’ of information from conception to occupation. This seeks to maintain a record of design changes and intent throughout the process to ensure accountability is maintained. Alongside this developers will have a duty to check and sign a declaration that they are satisfied that the people they instruct to work on their behalf are competent to do so.

Following completion, in high-rise buildings, owners will be required to appoint a Building Safety Manager who will be responsible for the day-to-day management of building safety and ensure a clear point of contact for residents.

In order to produce the information required at each gateway it is likely that the buildings will need to be designed using BIM (Building Information Modelling), whereby the building is developed and detailed in a 3D environment with scheduling and construction information integrated within it that can be collaborated on by the whole design team.

Pro Vision has for many years been using BIM and we are already utilising BIM software to deliver a wide range of projects.


Whilst many of the changes are specifically related to buildings over 18m to the upper floor or 6 storeys in height, it is Government’s intention for many of these changes to be rolled out to all buildings over time. It is therefore important for anyone in the development industry to know and understand the direction of travel and the potential implications to the way in which buildings are designed, procured and constructed.

Other changes coming forward include those to the Building Regulations energy efficiency standards. These will likely require developers to reduce carbon emission targets within their buildings by an additional 31% over current regulations. This is likely to require more thermally efficient construction as well as a greater requirement for on-site renewables. Equally, Accredited Construction Details, which currently allow developers to use standard junction details to model the heat loss through a building, are being withdrawn and developers may be required to appoint a suitable specialist to calculate heat loss through each individual junction in a building. These all have the potential to add cost and time for the developer during the detailed design and construction phases of a project.

Changes to the Building Regulations are likely to come in spring 2021 and so developers looking to begin construction later this year should be aware of the implications. The Building Safety Bill is likely to become law this summer / autumn and so the industry is currently in a period of gearing up for this to ensure that we can design, procure and construct buildings in a safe and accountable way.

If you would like to know more about these issues or you want to discuss how these changes might affect a specific project, please contact us on: 01794 368 698 or [email protected]

James Iles looks at Permission in Principle as a new route for small-scale housing schemes.

Introduced by Government in June 2018, Permission in Principle (PiP) is the first major new type of planning application since outline permission came into use in the 1960s. 

This new planning tool is specifically for minor-scale residential development (up to nine dwellings) to boost housing supply. The aim is to give applicants certainty a site can be developed for housing without having to spend the time or money on making a full or outline planning application.

How does it work?

PiP involves two stages: stage one establishes if a site is suitable in principle for housing-led development (it can be mixed-use); if successful, the applicant will need to follow-up with a stage two ‘technical details consent’ application when design and other matters will be considered.

In assessing a PiP application, the local planning authority (LPA) is only entitled to consider the ‘in principle’ matters of location, land use and amount of development. If PiP is granted, before building work can start a detailed application is required which deals with all other planning matters.

PiP was first introduced to encourage housing on previously developed land through the Brownfield Land Register compiled by LPAs.  Part 1 includes sites categorised as previously developed land suitable for housing-led development. LPAs have the power to progress sites to Part 2, which automatically results in the grant of PiP. 

The concept was subsequently expanded to allow direct applications to the LPA for PiP on greenfield or brownfield land for minor-scale housing-led schemes.

So, what are the pros and cons?

A major plus is the level of information required is minimal – a simple plan identifying the application site and number of proposed homes. The LPA should deliver a decision within five weeks which is quicker than other applications.

The benefit of PiP over pre-application advice is that it provides ‘in principle’ planning consent whereas advice tends to be heavily caveated and ‘without prejudice.’ PiP provides a more certain basis for progressing to a detailed application.

On the downside, this route is only applicable to schemes of less than 10 homes. Other exclusions include land affecting protected habitats. Moreover, in practice there are likely to be limited circumstances when testing the principle of development is beneficial as the detail is often the determining factor and what ultimately determines a site’s value.

LPAs are taking time to get to grips with PiP applications, perhaps partly because they are still very new. There is some ambiguity about the difference between a fundamental matter of principle and technical details and we have found some officers seek to drill into the detail as they are used to doing.

Will it add to housing supply?

Early indications suggest a slow take-up of PiP.  In Pro Vision’s experience, however, there have been circumstances when this new tool has proved very useful. For example, sites on the edge of settlements where housing-led development is logical but local policy is not supportive, perhaps because it is out-of-date.  In such cases, a PiP application enables a ‘planning balance’ argument (an assessment of policy against other material considerations) about the principle of development to be rehearsed with the LPA in advance of committing to the technical details. Alternatively, it may also be useful to test the acceptable density of residential development.

PiP is unlikely to significantly add to housing supply given its limitations to minor-scale development or Brownfield Land Registers. Nevertheless, it is a potentially useful option in certain circumstances, should help more small sites to come forward and is likely to grow in popularity.

If you have any queries or require further information about Permission In Principle, please do get in touch  01794 368 698 or email [email protected]


Disclaimer: This article is a summary and for information only.  It does not purport to explain relevant legislation and guidance in detail.  It does not provide specific advice on any land and should not be relied on to make any investment, property or planning decisions.