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The End of Virtual Planning Committees

For the past year, the Coronavirus Act 2020 has allowed committee meetings to take place online whilst people have been unable to gather indoors, to help stop the spread of Covid-19. However, from Friday 7 May, virtual committees will no longer be lawful and are required to revert back to the more traditional format of face-to-face committees.

Despite there being support for virtual committees, with the ease of logging in from the kitchen table winning lots of us over, the High Court ruled on 28 April in Hertfordshire County Council & Others v The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government that primary legislation would be needed to allow them to continue. In a further supplementary decision published on 5 May, the Court ruled that attendance at meetings which are open to the public require physical, as opposed to virtual, presence.

As with many things taking place in the past year of the Pandemic, there is uncertainty and confusion about how the shift from virtual to face-to-face committees will play out in the coming weeks and months.

One option that is being explored is a hybrid approach. For many Local Authorities this would include some attendees being present in the room, with others joining virtually. However, given the decision that the public must be allowed to physically attend committee meetings, this may need some working through to find a solution that satisfies the law and maintains accessibility. Despite some clarity being provided on who needs to be in attendance for the meeting to be valid, it is still unclear how many members of the public will be able to attend given social distancing guidance. We are aware that some Councils are exploring options whereby Members are in the Committee Chamber, Officers present virtually and the public are able to either attend in a separate room viewing a live stream or watch from home virtually, however this approach is yet to be confirmed.

Social distancing is likely to be one of the major problems that Local Authorities have to work through in the coming weeks and months, particularly due to the space available. Although the Government has suggested that venues could be hired to host committees where the traditional Committee Chamber is too small, some Local Authorities may be reluctant to fund this and it’s unclear how quickly it could be organised. If Local Authorities do not have enough space and cannot access a suitable venue, we could see the system grind to a halt resulting in delays to committees and decision making.

Furthermore, whilst we are slowly coming out of the full lockdown with steady progress being made, there is likely to be a number of Officers, developers, applicants, Councillors and the general public who are reluctant to attend in person. After a year of restrictions, eliminating the virtual element of committees and asking people to return to traditional committee meetings may make some uncomfortable about returning to a crowded room. This issue of social distancing and space raises questions around participation, such as whether speakers would have to be in the room or whether they may present virtually, and highlights the importance of encouraging people back to face-to-face committees in an inclusive manor.

One way to provide reassurance to committee attendees may be to require a negative Covid test. Whilst this may allow for a more secure environment and encourage attendance, this could raise problems with prejudice. For example, what would happen if a person displayed a positive test and was unable to speak? Would the application be deferred or continue as normal? This could not only cause issues surrounding prejudice, but could cause further delays.

Amid the uncertainty, in this period it is possible that we may see an increase in delegated decision making where constitutions allow it, which would certainly ease pressure on Local Authorities whilst they grapple with the adjustments that will be taking place.

Whilst committees will no longer be held virtually, it is important to highlight that the High Court ruling does not apply to hearings, inquiries or meetings held by the Planning Inspectorate. On 7 May the Planning Inspectorate published guidance on site visits, hearings, inquiries and events, stating that no changes will be occurring. Hearings and inquires will continue to be held virtually and they expect the majority of cases to be heard through virtual events for the remainder of the year.

Ultimately, it seems that the outcomes of the end to virtual committees may come down to social distancing and space, and how Local Authorities can provide a safe, inclusive environment to allow people to feel comfortable enough to attend face-to-face committees. The end of virtual planning committees will likely be seen by many as a missed opportunity to continue with a system that has proved popular, inclusive and efficient.

Whilst the lockdown is set to be relaxed in mid-May and mid-June, there will likely be delays and uncertainty during the coming weeks and months whilst details are ironed out and we all adjust to face-to-face committees in a time where Covid-19 has not yet gone away. Boyer will be monitoring the response of Local Authorities during this period to gain a full understanding of how they will manage the situation.

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