Will new approaches to planning decision making continue beyond COVID-19?

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed the way in which planning decisions are being made in a matter of weeks. Nominally the advent of virtual planning committees and increased use of delegated decision making by officers are short-term measures. But could we see changes becoming imbedded for the longer-term?

With regards to virtual council meetings, that decision lies with the Government. A change to the law was required to allow decisions to be made remotely, paving the way for virtual committees. But it is only a temporary measure in force until May 2021.

Could the Government be tempted into extending this in some way? There must be a recognition of the potential for virtual committees to speed up the process, something which will be attractive given the importance of planning and development to the economic recovery following the COVID-19 crisis.

The experience of virtual meetings so far, using platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, shows that they can be swiftly arranged, well controlled and managed in a way physical meetings cannot always. There have been early snags, including one of the first meetings in South Somerset, where there was significant disruption due to access to the meeting being too public. Also, a meeting in Horsham in Sussex descended into controversy when a decision on an application that was decided on the Chair’s casting vote was challenged when councillors queried the vote of one member who they argued couldn’t be heard. But these experiences will and have been learned from and many more virtual meetings have been conducted smoothly and without incident.

Sure there will be unavoidable political and community pressure for contentious major applications to be held physically in public. But could physical meetings be reserved only for the relatively few applications of this nature leaving others to be considered by virtual committees or delegated to officers, and avoiding delays to decisions on smaller or less controversial applications?

No doubt anti-development groups and some minority political parties, who are already challenging whether planning decision making should be going ahead at all during COVID-19, would argue this is an affront to democracy. But councils have found ways to ensure communities can still have their say, whether by enabling residents to speak or submit written statements, and by including a more detailed section in the officer’s presentation to outline community representations.

There is also an argument developing that virtual meetings will enrich democracy. For example, they could make becoming a councillor more accessible to people who work full time or shift patterns and could enable councillors on parental leave to continue to serve on committees and contribute. Don’t be surprised if councillors, and local government more widely, campaigns for virtual decision making to continue on this basis.

And it seems probable that virtual decision making may lead to more objective decisions by councillors, without the pressure of large groups of interested parties in the room. This may in turn reduce councils’ exposure to potentially expensive planning appeals.

Whether some form of virtual decision making continues beyond COVID-19, will likely depend on if councils, and ultimately the Government, are brave enough in the face of likely opposition from anti-development groups and some politicians to continue to enable faster and more efficient decision making. This could in turn aid economic recovery at a very crucial moment.

Cameron Scott by:
Cameron Scott