COVID-19 Encourages Virtual Planning

Quick planning (ish) legal test – do some or all the following mean anything to you – S73, S106, S25, S78?

S73 – develop without compliance with conditions (TCPA – Town & Country Planning Act)

S106 – legal agreement (T&CPA)

S25 – councillors can vote on an application upon which they have expressed a view (Localism Act)

Good (ish) going so far?  What about S78?  Well keen planners out there, S78 (T&CPA) does allow an appeal to be made in relation to an application, but another more recent S78 has far different implications.

S78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (1) came into force on the 4th April 2020.  Regulation 5 of said legislation allows local authorities (amongst others) to meet, consider and decide matters away from a single location in person (say the Council Chamber) and effectively convert the time tested tradition of planning applications being determined in the Council chamber,  in person to, wait for it – an online accessible medium.

The single most important benefit for planning is that in this lockdown stay at home environment, planning applications can still be determined by committee and an important end game in the planning system, determination, is not obstructed.

Many planning authorities have been webcasting planning committee meetings prior to the Virus Act, benefits amongst others being:

  • Interested parties including members of the public can observe committee dealings without physical attendance, particularly when committee times vary (2pm, 6pm, 7pm) and may not be conducive to travelling to X or Y Town Hall and having to actually be there.
  • Committee Member’s behaviour can be observed prior to the determination of an applicants’ own application. Spot the silent majority/minority, Cllr A who adores Policy Res1.2 so much that all applications are tied to it, or Cllr B who always seems to reiterate/repeat what Cllr C says.
  • Officer’s behaviour can also be observed. From the methodical, steady presenting officer to the officer who politely reminds the Chair that precedent has been set elsewhere, right through to an officer who was observed being unable weather the storm which many Cllrs brought to home on numerous applications (not helped by a weak Chair).
  • Agent’s behaviour can be observed and critiqued

Now the key difference is that all planning committees are being dragged into reality and being forced to conduct planning business in public over the web in real time.  I have observed a Hertfordshire planning authority conduct their affairs extremely well (and this was their first online attempt).  The Chair assumed his normal controlling authority, the presenting, questioning, determining format was scrupulously deployed and third parties were very fairly dealt with and in one case questioned by Members.

I have, however, also observed a Kent planning authority where webcasting has been in operation way before the Virus legislation came along and where Members who were unable to come to a view on a particular aspect of an application decided to down (online) tools, halt the meeting and retire to another (non-onlined) room without officers “to discuss” and then return with an answer.

In the future, with online working increasing other staples of Council meetings should/could be shelved.  What about the 60-odd, 100 sometimes +300 page paper agendas which are churned out of the Council’s print section a week in advance of meetings, to be followed by 10, 20, 30+ paper addendum in the run up to the meetings?  Hardly sustainable, especially when said Councillors may extol the virtues of their own Local Plan policy Sus2.1 which seeks to ensure developments install Electric Vehicle charging points.

One note of caution which I learned (the hard way) prior to online committee meetings being mandatory, remember, if you are acting on behalf of the applicant and are speaking before committee, you may be being recorded and webcast.  Having been asked at the last minute to substitute a colleague who was ill, I turned up to a planning committee trying to assimilate the bare essentials (and more) before the coveted 3 minute speaking slot.  3 minutes done and dusted, relatively easy ride from Member’s questions, planning permission granted, leave Chamber at 9.30, pm, home just before midnight – job done!

Next morning (9.30ish) the project’s architect called to congratulate on getting permission.  I was somewhat perplexed as I had only informed the client the night before.  This particularly keen and assiduous relatively junior architect had viewed the committee proceedings online and seen and heard my inclusion wanted or not!  One other slightly irritating feature of the online webcasting is that anyone (client, colleague, boss, junior team members, even family and you yourself (!!), can observe and mark out of ten your efforts!

Overall, this is a welcome temporary measure which should be made permanent, post virus conditions.  Indeed, many local authorities have already introduced successful webcam recording conditions.  Having spoken to officers and Members any initial hiccups have been swiftly remedied.  One officer (and indeed mine with two authorities) is that fewer items are being put on the agenda as many applications (with one authority) seemed to be taking longer to determine.  No fault of Members or officers just time-lag, repetition being needed, some contributor’s (Members, speakers, applicant, etc) online presence not there when required. From a practical and procedural perspective one officer stated that agenda setting and preparation for the committee meeting was “smarter and more effective.”  For that authority, a result has been the faithful monthly committee meetings now occurring weekly.

A great way in which to prepare for committee meetings noting officer and Member traits in the expectation that when it is your turn to be under the virtual microscope you can also “perform” efficiently, calmly and authoritatively – all resulting in – “planning permission granted” !!!



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