Planning Committee Meetings etc
During the current period of national lockdown due to the Coronavirus, we are seeing some unprecedented changes in the planning world – many (such as the judgment in Kerry v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government being “handed down” over the telephone last week) not imagined only a few weeks ago. Such changes are being brought in extremely quickly – so much so that elements of this article may be out of date soon after it is posted! Local authority planners are, like so many millions of people across the country, currently working from home and all site visits and meetings have obviously been halted for the time being. This means that officer delegated planning applications (or at least those for which the site visit has already taken place) should hopefully be able to proceed to a decision, but many of those which would normally be decided at a committee meeting are currently stuck.
The Local Government Act 1972 is causing a problem to the progress of the committee category of applications, as it is restrictive. It states that any decision taken at a local authority meeting (including committees and sub committees) shall be decided by a majority of those present and voting at the meeting. This means that it is not possible to have a meeting unless a quorum is physically present in the room. The law permits others to join the meeting virtually, but does not allow participation, or any voting by the Members themselves, by telephone, skype calls, video conferencing or other remote means.
A letter from the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) to Secretary of State Robert Jenrick suggests amending the Local Government Act 1972 to allow (amongst other matters) remote participation in and remote voting by Councillors at “essential” Council meetings, including planning committees.
The Department of Housing, Community and Local Government (“DHCLG”) announced last week that it will indeed consider bringing forward legislation to allow committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period (which was confirmed by Steve Quartermain, the outgoing Chief Planner, in his final newsletter published on 24 March 2020) and an update on this is expected soon from Secretary of State Robert Jenrick.
Many Councils' constitutions provide a right for members of the public to speak at Planning Committee meetings. If/when legislation is brought in to allow the above change, it will hopefully not exclude members of the public, but require that Councils make reasonable efforts to enable them to take part. But the hope is of course that each Council's technology/systems in place will be robust and capable enough to allow such participants to do so.
Meanwhile, several Local Councils around the country have made or are considering making amendments to their constitutions to allow Heads of Planning (and other departments) to make some of the decisions which would otherwise have been taken by the committee. The committee-input-approach being adopted by these Councils is that such a decision is now made by a senior officer once he or she has heard the views of a sufficient number of the Members of the committee – this is usually after a Skype or remote video call of some sort has taken place. The Members’ views are not binding, but the officer making the decision would be expected to give weight to their opinions.
Hopefully the Secretary of State’s update will be announced soon, so that decisions at each level of the planning system can continue to be made promptly during this current quarantine period.
Similarly, a team of barristers from No 5 Chambers and Kings Chambers has put together a proposal which is currently being considered by the DHCLG, the Planning and Environmental Law Association and the Planning Inspectorate, relating to the use of technology and video conferencing (such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams) for planning inquiries, hearings and examinations in public. It would of course be very welcome news if those could also continue, so far as possible according to the proper timetable, during these difficult times.
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