We understand that some civic societies and community groups are concerned about the implications of COVID19 and how this will impact the planning system in regard to Local Authorities processing planning applications.
In the same way that civic societies are saying that they are experiencing challenges in meeting face-to-face, we should not be surprised that this is also the case for councils.
So what is being done about this?
The government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic. This will enable councils to continue to make decisions during the current crisis.
Section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 allows the relevant national authority to make regulations providing for virtual meetings in local authorities, including the Greater London Authority, district, county and unitary councils, parish councils and national park authorities.
The Regulations apply to meetings held, or required to be held, before 7th May 2021.
Does this affect Planning Committee Meetings?
The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.
Anticipating the impact of the current emergency on the planning system, the Chief Planner’s recent ‘Planning Update‘ advised on how councils could respond to ensure that the planning system could operate.
” The Government has confirmed that it will introduce legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period, which we expect will allow planning committees to continue.”
Chief Planner, Steve Quartermain
The Government has indeed introduced this legislation and local Councils can now legally hold online only council meetings. It comes into force on April 4th http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/392/contents/made.
What do civic societies need to know?
The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including planning meetings.
Existing rules about the number of councillors or members of a group required to attend to make a meeting valid will remain, but virtual attendance will count.
Government will be working with others to developing guidance for local authorities about holding remote meetings.
Will the public will still have access to public meetings through remote means?
There are still some practical concerns about how these meetings will be hosted, and in particular the manner in which members of the public will be able to participate, but meetings must remain accessible whilst ensuring that councillors, staff and the wider public are able to follow government advice. We will see how this works through in practice.
The requirement for public meetings to be made accessible to the public remains, but it will be up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.
An authority would have to make its own decision if it was going to cut back on public attendance and we would ask civic societies to inform us where this happens.
The regulations say:
- Live webcast of meeting is enough to comply with new rules re press and public: “(9A) In this Act, references to—
- (a)a meeting being “open to the public” includes access to the meeting through remote means including video conferencing, live webcast, and live interactive streaming
- Where a meeting is accessible to the public through such remote means the meeting is open to the public whether or not members of the public are able to attend the meeting in person;
- (a)any reference to being “present” at a meeting includes being present through remote attendance;
- (b)any reference to a “place” where a meeting is held, or to be held, includes reference to more than one place including electronic, digital or virtual locations such as internet locations, web addresses or conference call telephone numbers;
Impact for civic societies and community groups?
We don’t know how this situation is going to work out. It could be that more applications are delegated to officers or it could be that planning committees are unable to meet due to lack of IT skills for some councillors, or that meetings could be held virtually without public participation. What about controversial applications? How will they be dealt?
It is important that you get in touch with your local planning authority to let them know that you want to participate. Being a formal constituted group may well make it easier for the council to engage with you.
We ask you to keep an eye on our blog as we continue to update you on any developments in this area. We will post how councils are responding.
Please do share your experiences with Civic Voice.
These times will push us to new methods of engagement, consultation and decision-making. We want to understand the situation from a community perspective and plan to submit a short report to Government. Please do share with us your experience over the next few months.
At the moment, we are taking a pragmatic view and want civic societies to follow suit.
Our priority must be ensuring that the process is transparent and that civic societies continue to monitor and participate. Throughout this process we are asking civic societies to let us know;
- How councils are ensuring that the community has a voice….
- Are they allowing Facebook comments? Written representations or virtual participation?
- Are councils delegating even more application to Officers to determine?
- Are councils delegating major applications to officers?
Share your thoughts firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whilst these measures are only temporary, if they are successful, there is probably an expectation that the government will look to make them permanent in a bid to speed up the planning process going forward.
Utilising existing and emerging technologies to form a 21st century future-ready planning system was a call within the Civic Voice manifesto.
We have to be supportive that councils are trying to adapt in a difficult situation. That does not mean we cannot monitor what is happening, champion the most innovative and make the case for improvements to the process.