Planning committees: dealing with coronavirus

The Government is considering legislation to ensure that planning committees can function online in the face of further lock downs to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

As people across the country begin to isolate themselves, the strain on local authorities has heightened.

Social care departments, third sector coordinating groups and councillors are all finding themselves being pulled in different directions in order to assist and support those in need.

But what about the day-to-day running of councils? And in particular planning departments?

Whilst planning meetings have been webcast for some time now, they must also be open for members of the public to attend in person. As well as this, for councillors’ votes to count, Government rules insist they must be present in the room where the vote is taking place.

This has made remote working impossible for councils up and down the country. Until now.

Last week, council leaders and chief executives from 300 local authorities were told the Government will look to rush through a Statutory Instrument which will allow councils to hold committee meetings virtually, something they are still waiting for.

This will allow councillors and the public to engage with planning meetings legally whilst also adhering to Government guidance on avoiding public meetings.

The new rules around virtual meetings and what these could like is unclear and unprecedented.

The new legislation however will need to achieve several things:

  • Members of the public must still be able to participate where required and it must be easily accessible for residents
  • Members views and questions must be taken into account and clearly documented
  • There must be clear transparency over voting (imagine the issues that would be caused if someone’s vote was cast wrongly!)
  • It must stick to current planning legislation – there is simply not enough time to do a ‘deep dive’ in changing planning laws immediately.

Developers, planners and all those within the built environment will be happy to see the Government taking the issue seriously.

There was widespread worry across the sector that coronavirus would halt planning decisions and block pipelines indefinitely.

However, for any local authorities due to hold planning meetings imminently, the legislative changes might not be made in time.  In these circumstances, very clear guidance will be required to ensure that everybody has confidence in the planning decisions made and that interested parties are able to have their say.

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