As we continue to move from the physical to the digital, Ian Harvey shares a perspective from attending a virtual planning committee meeting.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s first ever ‘virtual planning meeting’.  Utilising the MS Teams software, the event was live-streamed on Thursday 9 April at 6.30pm, and featured members from the RBKC Planning Committee.KBKC Notice of meeting

I made some notes from the session which I’d like to share with you as we work to get  more people involved in changing the way we involve communities in planning. I can see that using technology will help support Civic Voice’s ambition to build on from the already engaged in planning, to getting absolutely everyone involved. 

  • I had to register as a guest, but think, in future, Councils should be making people register with full contact details to increase transparency for everyone involved. It would then decrease the likelihood of people abusing the process i.e. See Somerset Council. 
  • A good chair and focused agenda is essential. 
  • A PowerPoint was shared with participants and we were able to listen in as Council Officers presented three different schemes. It worked okay until the need to go back to review parts of the presentation. Unfortunately the slides went forward….
  • It felt like that the discussion was less natural, but I am sure this will evolve as people become more comfortable with the format. 
  • Paperwork/plans/photographs etc should be circulated to an email list of participants and posted on social media for further interest well-ahead of the meeting for people to access.
  • It should be possible for questions to be submitted ahead of the meeting, then at the point in the meeting, individual(s) introduced to speak via a digital platform. If the individual cannot attend, the question should still be recorded and responded too.
  • Councillors need time to consider potential questions/points from the public so that they can prepare a reply.
  • A full report/recording from the meeting should be circulated to all individuals registered on a mailing list. 
  • The Committee considered the Planning Officer’s recommendation and arrived at their decision by means of a vote…. A decision to approve and whether to impose conditions occurred as it would in a normal physical meeting.
  • I spotted on twitter, one comment that someone had difficulties with the time it took for the website to load, but I can only speak for my own experience. It worked well.
  • In summary, it worked okay for the first meeting and RBKC should be applauded for being one of the first councils to do this. It can be easy to be critical of councils trying something new, but someone has to start the process!  

Will we see more people engaged and participating?

With the introduction on ‘virtual planning meetings’, the challenge will be to recreate (as best we can)  the sense of involvement that people gainCllr Cem Kehali from attending face-to-face meetings. 

Responding to a comment on twitter, RBKC Cllr Kemahli,  tweeted that nearly 200 members of the public watching at one point. This is a positive.

Even Somerset Council, which reported incidents of misuse and irresponsible comments, reported a higher than usual turnout. These are early positive signs.

In Civic Voice’s experience, we have found people are prepared to be polite, to play by the rules and to allow space for meaningful participation.  We shouldn’t allow a few minority of idiots to stop what is a positive step for the planning system. 

Some suggestions for local councils to consider to enhance the experience:

  • Have access to widgets (like video, infographic, document and podcast libraries) to support the presentation of the scheme
  • Allow registered users to contribute live (managed discussion) and to see other people’s thoughts and suggestions to increase interaction. 
  • The quality of individual internet connections will no doubt vary. We do not want to see lots of frozen screens and drop-outs, so ensuring the testing of the quality of internet connection. 

So, How Do We Ensure that Planning Committee remain inclusive?

When the average time that someone can speak at a planning committee meeting is 3 minutes, do we class them as inclusive now? Or perhaps the time of day is a barrier to participation? We know some councils hold committees during the daytime, so does this immediately exclude working people from participating.

The planning committee is only one part of using “digital” to enhance “democracy”  and all public comments throughout the process should be visible. The first #plantech company to build a platform to enable the above to happen will be in a strong position!

Planning committee meetings are public meetings where elected councillors assemble to decide whether planning applications should be approved or rejected and whether approved applications should have planning conditions or planning obligations attached to them. And they are physical. But no more. They will now become digital. 

The key will be integrating the physical and digital going forward. It needs both.  

Should communities embrace or fear the virtual planning meetings?

If anyone should fear the change, it should be local councils. Both Somerset and RBKC reported a significant increase in the number of people registering to participate. That is as a positive. The more people that participate, the more aware and accountable councils will be to the electorate on the decisions they are taking.

Summary

We know that some councils plan to delegate all decisions to officers during this period. I do not think that is very democratic or transparent. We need to build trust in planning and that means transparency.  There is no easy path for councils, and there will be limits as to what can work, but with the advancement in technology, we should be embracing this change and not letting the “perfect” answer, get in the way of progress. 

It will be interesting to see what elected members and the public make of the operation of the new rules over the next year or so and my colleague Sarah James is putting together a guide that will look at the good, the bad and the ugly so that we can improve and enhance the experience across the board. 

A review of these regulations will be undertaken by MHCLG and we are urging councils to do the same. We are pleased that RBKC have already shared a survey asking for feedback. You can see it here. We will be sharing this with other councils as it is by learning and sharing that we can improve the process together

My colleague Sarah would welcome hearing the experience from others via info@civicvoice.org.uk. We will be undertaking our own assessment of the way councils are working, so please do register your interest at info@civicvoice.org.uk to be kept updated. If you have participated in a virtual planning meeting, let Sarah know:

  • Any general comments on the Virtual Planning Meeting
  • What worked well? 
  • What could be improved?
  • What would you like to see changed?
  • Were you able to hear participants?
  • Were you able to see participants?
  • What would improve the experience and process for future meetings?
  • Would specific guidance be helpful?
  • When you submitted a question, were the responses back to you helpful?
  • Was the information sent to you about attending the meeting to ask a supplementary question or about how to submit a supplementary question, 

Digital tools can certainly be used by councils to ensure that community view and recommendations can inform and influence local decision making.

Ian Harvey

Civic Voice

As we continue to move from the physical to the digital, Ian Harvey shares a perspective from attending a virtual planning committee meeting.

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