Appearing at an Examination is a significant career milestone and your first appearance might understandably give rise to some anxiety.
Typically, you can expect up to 20 participants around the table, as well as the onlookers in the public audience and in some cases, live streaming of the sessions. Before you know it, your ‘attendance’ evolves into your ‘performance’, for all your peers to evaluate. However, good preparation coupled with an understanding of the process will place you in the best possible mindset on the day.
It is always helpful to make early contact with the programme officer, who fulfils an impartial liaison role dealing with the administrative tasks of the examination for the Inspector. The programme officer will issue the procedural documents for the hearings, including the inspector’s examination guidance notes, the agenda and key questions and the inspector’s allocation of participants to relevant sessions.
Through the programme officer, the inspector may request further written submissions or ‘statements’, seeking very specific content to further inform his or her consideration. These additional statements will be focused and are not the place to simply repeat your formal representation on the draft plan. You will be expected to keep to a strict word limit, usually no more than 3000 words. Also, ensure you meet the deadline set, as the programme officer will need to make the statements available to other participants around 2 weeks before the hearings start.
The inspector will structure the hearing sessions around the critical issues affecting the soundness of the plan. In the days ahead of the hearing sessions, read everything pertinent to your topic, and make a note of the most important points that need to be made verbally. Use the inspector’s key questions to guide you in ensuring the points you make are relevant and will assist the inspector to gain the fullest possible understanding of your case.
The inspector will take the lead in the hearing sessions and will not spend time (subject to the right to be heard) considering points which will not help a decision as to whether the Plan is sound. Whilst you are exercising your ‘right to be heard’, the time allocated to you to is entirely at the inspector’s discretion, so get to the point.
Remember you are simply engaging in an informed debate about the topic. You cannot be expected to know everything, and if there is a question or point that requires clarification, advise the inspector that it needs to be checked and that you will provide the answer as soon as possible. Do not guess an answer, because it’s often the case that somebody else at the table does know the correct answer!
You should not assume you will be able to sit as a participant throughout the duration of the hearing sessions. In facilitating probative discussion, inspectors will coordinate participants to the table who have raised points on the same issue. Once the issue(s) you are being heard on has been discussed you will in most cases, depending on numbers, have to leave the table. Only the representative(s) of the local planning authority will have a seat at the table for the full duration of the hearings.
Rest assured that inspectors are extensively trained to ensure that proceedings are even handed at all times. Whilst legal advocates are likely to attend and invariably present their case very well, Inspectors are nonetheless expert in drawing in all relevant participants to achieve an informed and balanced discussion, hearing parties fairly and equally. Similarly, normal courtesies apply. Inspectors will not countenance any participant being repeatedly interrupted, talked over or shouted down.
Finally, the examination process routinely takes a year or more to be completed. It is not uncommon for inspectors to hold two tranches of hearing session over the duration of the examination, so you may find yourself participating again in the not too distant future.
Lee Armitage is director at consultancy Intelligent Plans and Examinations (IPE) and formerly worked at the Planning Inspectorate as head of service responsible for local plan examinations.