It’s the moment many have been waiting for, the Statutory Instrument allowing local authorities in England and Wales to hold meetings remotely has been published and will be in force on Saturday 4 April 2020.
Since the Government’s lock down on public gatherings and non-essential business, council meetings have been cancelled or postponed, leaving major applications undetermined.
This document changes that.
No more than eight pages, the Statutory Instrument (SI) changes the way local councils have been doing business since they were first founded, dragging local democracy kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
But what does it all mean?
In basic terms, local authorities are now free to hold their meetings remotely, with councillors, members of the public, and members of the press able to access meetings through, “remote means including (but not limited to) video conferencing, live webcast, and live interactive streaming”.
This will mean that planning committees are free to determine applications remotely, with councillors discussing the merits of planning through services such as ZOOM (other conference facilities are available) and showing their support, or objection, either by saying so, or indicating via an electronic voting system.
What’s the catch?
The SI also allows local authorities to, “alter the frequency, move or cancel such meetings” without any warning or notice, whilst any decisions that would be made at an Annual General Meeting (such as the election of a Leader of the Council) must be postponed until the next AGM or “until such times as that authority may determine.”
Whilst the second part of this will cause political junkies like me to ponder on the chaos and manoeuvres that halting AGM decisions will create, the concept of remote planning committees will cause a whole new set of issues for everyone involved.
For example, the SI states that for members of the public to take part in any council meeting, the council must make a standing order to allow this to happen, likewise to allow public and councillor access to documents. There is nothing forcing a council’s hand to do this though.
The SI will also transform the relationship between councillors, planning officers and local accountability.
Many of us will have attended planning committees (or indeed sat on them) when a group of residents have turned up to either express support or objection to a particular application; and this can make a real difference to what decision is made.
But how will such advocacy for or discontent against an application be demonstrated when decision makers could be sat miles away from the general public, behind a computer screen?
For one thing, it could make the power of petitions and submissions to the Local Planning Authority far more effective, as councillors will be making decisions removed from the usual emotions of a committee room.
It will be of interest to see how each local authority manages these changes and how quickly they take to implement them.
Some councils have had a head start though. Liverpool City Council has been holding virtual planning meetings already, with councillors debating decisions via video conferences and then setting out recommendations to the Chief Executive, who then uses delegated powers to make the final decision.
I was lucky enough to speak to one Liverpool councillor to see how it worked. He responded positively, saying the remote access actually made the decision-making process more collaborative and less of a political point scoring exercise.
With the housing crisis not going to go away because of the current epidemic and investment across the built environment still absolutely vital for UK PLC, it is in everyone’s interests that we embrace the new virtual world.
You can download BECG’s Guide to Digital Consultation here.