Research shows the stress of a PLI and the need for a rethink

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Planning Democracy have been exploring people’s experiences of being involved in Public Local Inquiries (PLI’s). Our interest was stimulated by Walter Inglis’ description of his roller coaster ride through the Grangemouth biomass PLI that we highlighted last year and by the number of inquiries for help with PLI’s that we were receiving.

It seems that everyone finds a PLI challenging; for some this is a rewarding experience but for many others it has led to depression, feelings of cynicism and in some, a sense of trauma. These strong emotional responses chime with our previous research into the public experience of Scotland’s planning system.

For our investigation we carried out a  survey of citizens’ experiences. The results show some striking similarities in the responses that suggest they are significant and illustrate important aspects of peoples’ experiences. This is particularly notable as the voice of citizens has not often been heard in debates about the efficacy of the PLI process.

All of our respondents expressed a perceived sense of injustice about the process. This was not directly related to the result of the PLI, but rather was a response to the organisation and conduct of the inquiry. Several said that they felt the inquiry did not fulfil its purpose to ‘objectively evaluate expert evidence’, i.e. that it was not a place to “hear evidence and judge the truth”. Some of the common challenges people found with the PLI process was the intimidating nature of the process, the adversarial nature of cross examination and the changing deadlines and volume of work involved.

Our conclusions are that there is a need to rethink the PLI process to ensure that people are able to participate in a non-intimidating environment where key issues are fully and fairly examined. Further research is required to explore how this goal might best be realised though international experiences from other deliberative forums (e.g. citizen’s juries) may provide some valuable lessons.

The research also emphasises the importance of focusing on the particular needs of non-professional participants. If people are entitled to participate in such processes, a basic sense of justice requires that they be equipped with the support necessary to ensure that they can present their case fully and that it will be given due consideration.

In order to ensure that this is the case there needs to be much greater recognition of the sacrifices and costs many members of the public incur in order to meet the challenge of participating, both in terms of preparation and the stress of the inquiry itself.

We have sent the results of our survey to the DPEA with our conclusions and a list of recommendations. The DPEA are currently producing guidance notes for “parties who are involved in appeals and other casework and what this will mean to them in practical terms”.  This guidance will cover hearing and inquiry sessions and we hope will help address some of the issues we have raised.

If you have been involved in a PLI and want to share your experiences contact us or write a comment below.

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4 Responses

  1. Having experienced the PLI for Druim Ba, at which the reporter was very fair, I found the Council for the developer, backed by a phalanx of legal beagles designed to intimidate. This is not a court of law and Barristers for the applicant should be penalised and, if necessary, removed from the PLI if that adopt an aggressive and legalistic approach to the witnesses. Several times the barrister was rebuked and had we not two very effective councils we may have faced a very different result. The truth did not seem of much interest and destroying witnesses was seen as sport to this barrister. With professional witnesses who have seen it all before it was an unacceptable part of the job but for the local witnesses it was a very unpleasant and unwarranted experience. At the Beauly-Denny PLI the behaviour of SSE’s Council was even worse, causing the chair of the local Community Council severe distress and stress related illness which has occurred with regularity ever since. This to me is not an acceptable behaviour of professional lawyers/barristers in such arenas as a PLI.

  2. Brenda Herrick

    Reading the other post about webcasting PLIs I think this would have a restraining effect on the bullying tactics we see so often as described by John and others. Highland Councillors have been called to account on some occasions over ill considered remarks which are on the record and cannot be denied. If the highly paid experts at PLIs knew that the general public could see their behaviour maybe some would reconsider their tactics in future and Reporters do more to see fair play.

  3. Steve Byford

    I had the occasion of representing our local community at the Beauly-Denny PLI some six years ago and found the whole experience extremely stressful, so much so that I believe that it resulted in my IBS.
    I had no experience of PLI’s before this occasion and assumed that it would be an open forum for residents and the general public to air their views on the development in a non threatening environment, this unfortunately was not the case, arriving at the PLI before my allocated time I witnessed what can only be called a viscous cross examination/ verbal attack on both Councillors and the head of the Planning department by a barrister and solicitors employed by the developers SSE/SHETL, this set entirely the wrong tone in my opinion involving concerned and affected residents and the public from voicing their opinions and views.
    I was also cross examined by the same barrister and solicitors and rather than the questions being about the proposed development is was again more of a personal attack on myself in an environment more akin to a Law Court, every word being recorded in front of an appointed Reporter for the Scottish Government, Newspaper Reporters and members of the public.
    The whole experience would make me very wary of being involved in any future PLI’s, why would you volunteer to be treated in such a way if you had the choicer not too !!

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