Virtual Planning Committees – Legislation and Implications

We previously commented on the changes to the UK planning service and the key message from the Government’s Chief Planner, pressing for creative ways to continue the planning process to support the local economy.

As the Coronavirus Act 2020 received Royal Ascent a few weeks ago, new ways to continue decision making within the Local Authority have been implemented, particularly noting the virtual planning committees.

Legal Mechanism

The previous existing legal requirements (including under councils’ constitutions) specifically in relation to local authority meetings, were previously stipulated under the 1972 Act and required councillors to be present to decide applications

The recently enacted (4th April) 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. It should be clearly noted that this is in relation to local authority meetings in England only.

Attendance

The Act removes the requirement for councils to hold an ‘AGM’, and thus continue ordinary function. Members attendance at a committee was previously required every 6 months, however the legislation allows remote attendance within the concourse that the member ‘can hear and be heard’. There is therefore, no requirement for video links, and this could be completed via phone call. Existing rules regarding the number of councillors or members of a group required to make a meeting valid remain.

Some limitations to this were highlighted including the reliability of an internet connection (dropping out), quality of broadband connection and the abilities of users with associated technologies. These constraints are not limited to committee members, but also to members of the public and those wishing to speak at the committee.

The Act also allows the authority discretion as to ‘the times at or by which, periods within which, or frequency with which, local authority meetings are to be held;’ (1B). However, the reasonableness and scheduling of such adjustment and timetabling should be in accordance with the authority’s constitution and in the interests of transparency.

Constitution and Delegation

The Act allows the amendment of the relevant Local Authority constitution and Delegated Powers. Although there is a clear need for full transparency and ensuring fairness in the implications of such changes, the greater exercise of delegation powers and emergency delegated powers are also welcomed. For example, Manchester City Council has amended the constitution so that for major applications, the Chief Executive now takes the decision in consultation with the Head of Planning.

Procedure

The notice of a meeting will now be (and is permitted to be) displayed online. This should include provision for allowing the pubic to inspect meeting agendas and reports in advance of meetings and afterwards. Such information and background information should be made available via online resources, for example the Council’s website.

It is anticipated that that procedures for virtual meetings should mimic those of existing procedures and protocols for public speaking, and applicant / objector speeches should remain in accordance with the Council’s existing constitution

Timescales

It should be noted that there is no statutory extension to time limits in the determination of applications. There is also no current clear legal implication to conduct virtual committees however it is hoped that the example of front runner authorities will provide the reassurance for others to follow suit.

Although in its infancy, the implications and particulars of this legislation are being fully considered and acted upon. The first full virtual planning committee was held by the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea last week, and it is hoped and anticipated that other Local Authorities will follow this example to continue the decision-making process throughout the course of this difficult time.

 

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