The government is paving the way for local planning authorities to be able to hold virtual committee meetings.
There is a practical issue here in maintaining social distancing at meetings as well as a potential legal impediment arising from Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972, which states that the vote at any meeting must be cast by a person present at that meeting.
There has been some debate about whether the 1972 wording can be interpreted as including 2020 technology so that “present” includes an on-line presence but that position is far from clear.
The latest amendments to the Coronavirus Bill 2020 published yesterday provide that national authorities for England, Wales and Northern Ireland may make regulations relating to how local authority meetings can be held. The power to make such regulations is drafted very broadly and allows for each national authority to determine:
- the requirement hold local authority meetings;
- the times at or by which, periods within which, or frequency with which, local authority meetings are to be held;
- the places at which local authority meetings are to be held;
- the manner in which persons may attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in, local authority meetings;
- public admission and access to local authority meetings;
- the places at which, and manner in which, documents relating to local authority meetings are to be open to inspection by, or otherwise available to, members of the public.
The draft bill also makes it clear that regulations may make provision for persons to attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in, local authority meetings without all, or any, of the persons, being together in the same place.
Importantly, the provisions may only apply to meetings taking place before 7 May 2021.
Questions remain over how the new regulations will operate and, consequently, how the decision-making landscape will look. For example, will all planning committee meetings still take place (even virtually)? Will more decisions be delegated to officers? How will virtual committee meetings work on a practical level? Will they work for all committee members and allow objectors to have their say?
It is likely that there will be a variety of approaches adopted by different planning authorities. Certainly, whilst video conferencing facilities are being set up, we expect there to be more decisions delegated to officers. However, ultimately, some form of virtual planning committee (operated through platforms such as Zoom or Skype) should be feasible for the majority.
As with everything, the devil will be in the detail. Yet, this latest announcement is positive news that will hopefully allow councils to work more flexibility so that decision making can continue without too much disruption