Changes to Virtual Planning Committee Meetings

A High Court judgment this week orders virtual council meetings to end from May 7. This has sparked disappointment within the development industry and local authorities amid fear of delays in planning decision making.

Over the last year, Local Authorities, Police & Crime Panels and Parish Councils have been able to conduct their business of democratic decision making remotely. The Coronavirus Act 2020, enabled the Secretary of State to make regulations and make provision for the way in which the public and other interested parties could attend and participate in meetings, and the availability of documents to members of the public. This came into effect on 4th April 2020 and applies to local authority meetings that are required to be held, or are held, before 7th May 2021.

Primarily S78 of the act, allows local authority (including planning committees) meetings to be held remotely, and where such meetings are to be open to the public, the public can do the same. However, that legislation expires on May 7th this year, so Local Authorities will have to return to holding their formal council meetings, in person, in the same room.

On 25 March 2021, the Government wrote to all local authorities and told them that it was “not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue at this time”. A claim by ADSO (Association of Democratic Services Officers), LLG (Lawyers in Local Government) and Hertfordshire County Council sought a judgement from the High Court on the matter. They claimed the word ‘meeting’ in local government legislation can be read as referring to virtual meetings as well as in-person meetings.

The High Court ruling dismissed the claim, pointing to a number of places within the Local Government Act 1972 which refers to the “place” of such meetings, to people being “present” at them and to the persons who may “attend”.

Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Chamberlain heard the case.  Their judgement concluded that: “For these reasons, we conclude that the Secretary of State was correct in November 2016 and July 2019 to say that primary legislation would be required to allow local authority “meetings” under the 1972 Act to take place remotely. In our view, once the Flexibility Regulations cease to apply, such meetings must take place at a single, specified geographical location; attending a meeting at such a location means physically going to it; and being “present” at such a meeting involves physical presence at that location.’’

We have all experienced the effectiveness of conducting virtual meetings over the past year, and we can all appreciate the reluctance to return to physical meetings whilst social distancing measures are still in place. Many councillors report that virtual meetings have been successful and authorities should be given flexibility to hold them. The Planning White Paper highlighted the need to use e-communications and better use of digital tools and this step backwards, seems contrary to this aim after considerable investment by Local Authorities in training and technologies to enable these meetings to take place.

Planning will inevitably be impacted, at least in the short term, since it relies on local authority meetings for decision making including planning determinations for significant development and decisions on local plan making. The current guidance letter from MHCLG (24th March), suggests while local authorities do have a legal obligation to ensure that the members of the public can access meetings, it is encouraged that remote access is still provided to minimise the need for the public to attend physically until at least 21 June.

We await to see results of the forthcoming challenges and changes to the development process as the planning system follows the government’s ‘Roadmap out of lockdown’.