Breaking news: Government publishes regulations on virtual meetings

How is the planning process staying on track during COVID-19?

In these unprecedented times, the Government has set councils the challenge of keeping the planning system going, acknowledging the role the development industry will play in the economic recovery. Central to this is ensuring that pre-app meetings continue to go ahead and decisions continue to be made.

Many councils have pivoted to the former quickly with officers conducting virtual meetings with developers. Anecdotal feedback points to cases such as Camden where meetings with officers have sped up, as they can dedicate more time to this while other council business can’t take place.

On decision making, the Government has legislated to enable committee meetings and decisions to be made virtually, with the measures coming into force on 4 April. Councils are also being encouraged to delegate more decisions to officers.

So what will decision making look like and where have councils got to?

Delegated decisions

The Planning Officer Society (POS) published a guide for council planners this week on managing committee decisions during COVID-19. Their key advice to planning officers is to reduce the number of cases going to committees by making more delegated decisions. This doesn’t mean that major strategic applications will be delegated. More likely it means councils may consider the threshold (i.e. size of development or number of units) at which a decision at committee is triggered, or reconsider the processes to ‘call-in’ applications.

Crucially, officers are advised to consult committee chairs about their plans for making delegated decisions (which they should do anyway). In a context where more delegated decisions are likely to be made the role of chairs will become even more important.

However it remains to be seen how widespread the move to greater delegation will be. The evidence so far is that it looks to be fairly limited. In London, a small number of boroughs, including Merton, appear to be enhancing their use of delegation, while others such as Brent are continuing to use delegated powers for smaller applications.

In some Labour councils, where regeneration schemes can be controversial and campaign groups active, they appear to be holding back due to concerns about the potential political and community backlash of watering down democratic decisions, or the potential for legal challenges. We have also seen cases of minority political groups such as the Liberal Democrats calling for planning decisions to be suspended until normal meetings can take place again.

Virtual committees

The POS has looked at the practicalities of virtual planning committees. Some councils have already begun preparing for the change that will make them lawful.

The London Borough of Waltham Forest was first out of the blocks to organise such a meeting, though in practice it was conducted only in part virtually.  The committee and officers met at the council, but the number of members was reduced while ensuring the meeting remained quorate. The virtual element included applicant speeches and the public. It seems unlikely others will follow this model given the genuine concerns about officers and councillors meeting in the same room.

Conference calls and video links are easy to organise and are being tested widely by councils like Lewisham, Croydon, Bromley and Southwark who want to stay up and running. To make virtual meetings manageable, the POS recommend keeping officer attendance to a minimum and reducing the number of members present to the minimum necessary to maintain political balance. As was the case with Waltham Forest this week, we might see councils reducing the size of committees when they meet virtually.

POS identify two key challenges – how to enable public speakers to participate and how to enable the wider public to view proceedings. On public participation, they suggest allowing speakers to record and email their speech to officers in advance.  Allowing open access to virtual meetings is fraught with problems technically and in terms of managing contributions. Though nothing untoward occurred, those who tuned into Waltham Forest’s committee were aware they could mute the contributions of others and that it wouldn’t have been difficult to disrupt proceedings. The POS recommend streaming separate live webcasts of meetings or uploading a recording asap afterwards. If councils follow this approach, virtual meetings would lead to less live interaction with members of the public.

What does this mean for delays to decision making?

Much like businesses, councillors and officers have in two weeks embraced technology to conduct regular dialogue and make day-to-day decisions. The crisis in London and the need to support the vulnerable has demanded it. Some like Hackney and Camden were already using technology for day-to day-meetings and engagement with the public.

For those councils eager to get back to business, but who need public participation to work for political reasons, different virtual formats will continue to be tested and decision making meetings will get back up and running. It perhaps won’t be surprising if those that get there first have their own politically significant council house building programmes. Those that are slow are predictable, but in time they will pick up the solutions tested and perfected by others.

There will inevitably be teething problems and some stakeholders won’t like how decisions are made. But the move to virtual meetings, and potentially more delegated decisions, should give applicants some confidence that delays brought about by COVID-19 will be measured in weeks (or less), not months as may have been feared two or three weeks ago.

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