Planning Decisions in a Global Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic, lockdown measures and the need to practice social distancing will have a significant impact on the area of planning decision making, just like virtually every other area of public and private life right now. 

The Rules

Determining planning applications and other planning decisions are local government functions which, despite the current crisis, still need to be made in accordance with public law rules, legislation and the Councils’ constitutions. Some planning decisions have to be made by planning committees while others, which are usually less complex or controversial, have been delegated to senior planning officers.

All local authority meetings, including full Council and committee meetings, have rules, set out by legislation relating to publicity. These include publishing the officer’s report to committee in advance of the meeting and making all documents which are relevant to the planning decision publicly available. Thanks to technology, many of these processes take place online and will perhaps be less vulnerable to disruption.

Planning committee meetings are required to be held in public with sufficient suitably trained members to make up a quorate. For certain types of decisions such as determination of planning applications, members of the public have rights to address the meeting (‘public speaking rights’). 

Effect of Lockdown on Planning Committee Meetings

The laws enabling the nation-wide lockdown clearly make the usual planning committee meetings unfeasible. Regulation 6 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (in force from 26 March 2020), states that “no one is allowed to leave their house except for specific reasons, which include travelling for the purposes of work or to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not reasonably possible for that person to work, or to provide those services, from the place where they are living”. Regulation 7 prohibits the gathering of more than two people in a public place subject to exceptions which include a gathering which is essential for work purposes. Contravention of regulations 6 and 7 are criminal offences.

While the exceptions in regulations 6 and 7 may, if there were no other means of meeting, possibly enable officers and members to meet, the regulations would definitely prevent any members of the public from attending those meetings. Since the crisis started, Councils have been preparing themselves for the obvious need for change and have mooted the idea of remote meetings. Some Councils already stream their planning committee meeting via live webcasts allowing a wider audience to attend. 

New Regulations on Remote Local Government Meetings

Regulations have now been made to enable  local authorities to hold meetings remotely and fulfil their constitutional and legislative requirements regarding public access. The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020, contain temporary measures, which specify that the definition of local authority meetings include meetings held virtually, online, by video conference or even telephone conference calling, so long as the members attending these meetings can be heard by, and where practicable, seen by other members and members of the public.

Under the regulations, a meeting is considered open to the public if it is accessible by remote means including video conferences and live webcasting. The regulations come into effect on Saturday 4 April.

Like working from home during this crisis, there is likely to be a practical difference between voluntarily making meetings accessible to some people online and having to conduct every planning meeting remotely. Adjustments will need to be made and resources, including staff time which itself is likely to be under strain, will be required to test systems, train members and ensure that everything runs smoothly. Notwithstanding this, it is extremely useful that technology has provided a potential solution to this particular aspect of the crisis which will hopefully prevent the system from grinding to a halt.   

The rate of change is dramatic at the moment and we are all on a rapid learning curve to engage with new circumstances and technological solutions. What we will find is that local planning authorities’ responses will not be consistent and that the issues surrounding the delay caused by the crisis will impact on all aspects of the economy.