One of the many impacts of COVID-19 is how local authorities are able to continue to hold planning committees while respecting social distancing recommendations.
Some of the potential solutions being looked at (in combination) are:
- Excluding the public from the committee meeting room;
- Streaming the meetings live over the web (as many councils do now).
- Allowing objectors to have their say via a video-link to the meeting.
While good in theory, there are some issues here, including
- Not every objector will have access to a video-link and so may feel disenfranchised at the decision making stage. That opens up the potential risk of a subsequent legal challenge to that decision.
- As a high proportion of planning committee members are or are close to being classified as at “high risk” of infection, is it wise for them to attend committee anyway? Would they have to ignore government advice in any event to do that?
- In practical terms, how do they (or indeed the council’s officers), get to the meeting in any event if public transport links are disrupted? Not everybody has a need for or access to a car (particularly in larger cities).
Even if those meetings can take place, there is now confusion over whether planning officers are or are not key workers. If they are not classified as such (which does appear to be the case), then how is the administration of those committees to be carried out when the government is advising those officers to work from home?
In addition, how does a council ensure that any meeting has adequate members present to be quorate.
Potentially, one solution to this is to temporarily suspend/amend the council’s standing orders/delegated powers so that more decisions can be made by/delegated to officers. That may however raise other questions over the veracity of those decisions, where there has been little or no formal public scrutiny or debate. The risk here is that, potentially, controversial schemes may secure permission by default at decision making stage and/or not be widely reported given that the media is understandably distracted by serious coronavirus issues.
Ultimately, if robust planning decisions are to continue to be made during the current health crisis, a solution will need to be found (and quickly), which addresses these concerns. It is imperative that a balance is struck so as to ensure as fair and transparent a decision-making process as possible