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Don’t stop me now! Why virtual planning meetings must continue

By Richard Blyth, head of policy at the RTPI

From 7 May 2021 local councils in England will no longer be able to hold planning committee meetings online. Instead, they will have to revert to face-to-face meetings under pre-Covid legislation which will be a huge retrograde step. It could also slow the decision making process down with many lockdown measures forecast to still be in force then.

Historically planning decisions had always been made by councillors in face-to-face meetings. The 1972 Local Government Act required councillors to be physically present to decide applications with no provision for remote participation or voting.

Following the introduction of social distancing measures in the United Kingdom on 23 March 2020 and Ireland on 27 March 2020, planning departments were confronted with the extraordinary task of maintaining decision making without the usual face-to-face planning committee meetings. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) acted quickly to ensure the UK’s planning systems could continue to function. Local democracy is a highly valued part of our planning systems in the UK and it became essential to find a way to preserve this.

The RTPI worked closely with the governments across the UK and Ireland to ensure that in spite of the pandemic, local democratic decisions on planning applications and local development plans could still be made. An RTPI report on the planning profession’s rapid response to Covid-19 summarised government legislation passed in the UK and Ireland at the start of the pandemic.

In England, the Coronavirus Act (2020) received Royal Assent on March 25 2020. Temporary regulations shortly followed on 4 April 2020 under the Coronavirus Act 2020 which provided local authorities with the powers to hold public meetings including planning committees virtually.

They have worked very well and business has largely continued as normal with benefits including not needing to travel to meetings, cost savings and many examples of increased participation rates in the democratic process.

As an example, the South Oxfordshire Local Plan Examination, normally a dry kind of gig, but also one of huge importance to the area’s future in setting out how development will be planned and delivered across South Oxfordshire to 2035, attracted 7,000 observers. And Jackie Weaver of Handforth in Cheshire has made the workings of parish councils a national sensation. 

Maintaining momentum in decision-making on planning applications such as for housing developments, regeneration projects or mixed-use schemes during Covid-19 has been invaluable. We know lockdown restrictions are forecast to still be in place in May and that public health concerns are likely to remain at least in the short to medium term.  Why risk that momentum by forcing in person only planning committee meetings to take place?

The temporary regulations that enable virtual meetings will expire on 6 May. To date the government has indicated it has no plans to extend them. The RTPI considers this is a grave error of judgement and calls on the government to think again.

The RTPI supports a campaign  by the Association of Democratic Services Officers and Lawyers in Local Government, which is lobbying the government to change primary legislation to enable local authority remote meetings to take place beyond the current statutory deadline.  RTPI research conducted with Grayling found that more than half of the UK public want to be involved in changes to their local community post-pandemic. The report found that digital engagement could be the key to unlocking participation from a larger, younger and more diverse cohort.

The genie is out of the bottle. The Planning White Paper in England proposed harnessing digital technology to improve the planning process to engage communities and mitigate climate change. What better way to start than passing legislation to make virtual meetings permanent while  exploring how a hybrid model could operate. This should seek to capture the benefits from the accelerated use of technology during the pandemic and help make planning meetings accessible to all - those who are less able to get to physical meetings and those who are not digitally savvy alike.

Discontinuing the regulations threatens to undo the many benefits, principally of increased engagement, seen over the last year. Barely a day passes without news of organisations exploring how best to harness digital technology in a post Covid world. Planning should do the same.

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