Category: Opinions | May 06, 2021
The Local Government Act 1972 requires councillors to be present to decide applications.
Since 4 April 2020, under emergency legislation, the Coronavirus Act 2020 (section 78), planning committee meetings have been authorised to be held virtually during restrictions implemented to stem the spread of Covid-19. The Coronavirus Act 2020 makes provisions for “persons to attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in, local authority meetings without all of the persons, or without any of the persons, being together in the same place”. This comes to an end on 6 May 2021.
The Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and Hertfordshire CC launched a judicial review after the Government refused to extend emergency legislation to allow virtual meetings beyond the 6 May deadline. That High Court challenge was dismissed.
The High Court said:
“In our view, once the flexibility regulations cease to apply, such meetings must take place at a single, specified geographical location; attending a meeting at such a location means physically going to it; and being ‘present’ at such a meeting involves physical presence at that location. We recognise that there are powerful arguments in favour of permitting remote meetings. But, as the consultation documents show, there are also arguments against doing so. The decision whether to permit some or all local authority meetings to be conducted remotely, and if so, how, and subject to what safeguards, involves difficult policy choices on which there is likely to be a range of competing views. These choices have been made legislatively for Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and for Wales by the Senedd. In England, they are for Parliament, not the courts.”
Planning decisions will inevitably be impacted as it is not clear as yet whether local government will be ready to physically undertake meetings, at least until all the government restrictions are eased in mid-June. Social distancing measures required by Covid-19 restrictions could still preclude councils from holding in person meetings for weeks or months to come.
The RTPI believes that a change in the law is needed to guarantee that virtual planning meetings in England can continue. Indeed, a hybrid model is being proposed and is seen as key to unlocking wider engagement in the planning process, while also encouraging a more diverse group of people to stand for election as councillors. The opportunity to continue to positively grasp modern and more accessible forms of decision making seems to have been lost for now.
There is currently a government consultation on the issue underway. There is a call for evidence by Government which seeks to understand the experience of local authorities in the whole of the UK regarding remote meetings. For more information see here which closes on 17 June 2021.