In March 2020, Covid-19 stopped us all in our tracks, but as the lockdown has progressed, many aspects of society are trying to get back to as close to normality as it is possible to be in the midst of a global pandemic. This is certainly true for the world of local government.
As we progress through lockdown more and more local authorities are coming around to a new way of working and are holding important meetings virtually. From what we can see has this has generally been a success (with the exception of the Horsham District Council live streamed meeting that was cut short for ‘violating’ YouTube’s terms and conditions).
However, whilst some councils have turned to technology to host their planning meetings, others have introduced increased delegated authority to keep the planning ship sailing. While this allows councillors more time to focus on ensuring their communities are safe, it has the unintended consequence of stretching council officers even further and circumventing some of the primary reasons that councillors are elected in the first place.
Granted there has not been a great rush to implement this in the Home Counties with South Oxfordshire District Council and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead standing as the most prominent of the few that have opted to put delegated powers into place. But this has not gone unnoticed. CPRE, Friends of the Earth, community group umbrella body Just Space and the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies recently issued a joint statement calling for measures to “safeguard the public voice in planning”. These groups believe that the Covid-19 regulations for Local Authority meetings could undermine democracy in planning decisions and are calling for no planning applications to be decided by delegated or executive powers. Whilst this is certainly an extreme reaction you can understand why they are not happy.
Planning has always been intrinsically linked to emotion. The way that a community feels about a proposed development can often change the outcome of an application. Many times we have seen councillors go against officers recommendations in order to protect a community, be it to protect it from what they feel is inappropriate development or to protect it by allowing a scheme that they feel adds a real benefit to existing residents. Furthermore, the power of advocacy at a Committee hearing whether from the applicant or an objector can often influence the decision of a Committee. In this unprecedented public health emergency, it is understandable that live speeches from applicants and objectors are being curtailed but we would hope most Councils will still allow written statements to be read out by the Committee Chairman as a minimum. Without the involvement of councillors and the opportunity for both sides to articulate their positions, there is the concern from communities that this emotion will be lost if planning is decided on entirely legal grounds.
It is clear that there is no one size fits all approach to managing planning applications during this period. But with lockdown restrictions being eased, access to previous requirements such as site visits (which we expect will be subject to strict social distancing) may no longer become an issue and the increased tendency for councils to use delegated powers could be a brief interlude on the road back to normality. Now more than ever councillors need to step up and take back the reigns to prove that they are able to tackle this challenge and retain the rubber stamp that has so often proved pivotal in planning.