As we are now all too aware, so much of human communication is dependent upon face-to-face communication. Video conferencing has become the new normal, and the Iceni team have been leading the way in its application – not only to ensure the seamless continuation and delivery of our services to clients, but to also help encourage different bodies to continue to provide leadership and follow through on making key decisions.
For too long, the main prohibition to remote-decision making has been Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act (1972), which requires that all local authority decisions can only be taken by members who are present (those participating by virtual means being unable to vote). One only has to watch a re-run of Life on Mars (a good stay-at-home box-set binge) to see just how much life has changed in the last fifty or so years. Yet it has taken a pandemic to bring about change.
It was only a matter of weeks ago that the Association of Democratic Services Officers first flagged the challenges for decision making and wrote to the SoS asking him to allow voting by remote means. Two days later the Coronavirus Bill was presented to the House of Commons. At this first stage the Bill did not make provision for local authorities to hold virtual meetings. Accordingly, amendments to the Bill were published on 23 March and the Bill became law (The Coronavirus Act) on 25 March 2020.
Section 78(2) of the Coronavirus Act is pertinent, enabling provision to be made in the regulations 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’. In summary, the Act allows the business of meetings to be executed virtually, subject to the confirmation of regulations from the SoS, which are imminent.
In his last address, the Government’s Chief Planner Steve Quartermain requested that local authorities explore opportunities to use technology, and to continue to work proactively with applicants and others. So for the foreseeable future at least, virtual meetings are here to stay.
What have local planning authorities been doing in response? We are pleased to say much more than just waiting for the regulations to be published. We have been impressed with the pragmatism and leadership shown by many local authorities in keeping business moving.
Some local authorities, such as LB Merton and the RB Windsor and Maidenhead, have prepared emergency powers and have resolved to give officers full delegated authority to determine planning applications, meaning planning committees are not required. Councils including Westminster and Epping, have confirmed that meetings from now on shall be held virtually by video-link. Other Councils have been more cautious, fearing the risk of Judicial Review amid concerns around public transparency, the delivery of public speaking and deputations and the potential prejudicing of stakeholders without access to the requisite technology. It is those authorities that the development industry needs to support to ensure the wheels of local government – and in turn the economy – keep moving.
As far as we can tell, all planning teams are now working from home, and remain accessible to enquiries. The majority of Councils are being proactive in trying to enable video link for their staff and have been open to joining externally arranged video link meetings. The Iceni team have led numerous pre-application meetings with officers and the GLA over the past week or so, demonstrating the practical utility of technology and serving as an example model for officers going forward.
Site visits have been more challenging, and have mostly been cancelled. However, there are again opportunities for creativity, with Iceni hosting its first real time video site visit by Drone, and trialling this technology further with clients. We believe this could be an important tool in not only maintaining pre-application and post-application meetings but, crucially, public and stakeholder consultation.
We enclose with this email a summary schedule of the current position of each and every planning authority in London as to their current position regarding planning team function and decision-making. Iceni will continue to track and monitor all authorities to assist our clients in these unprecedented times.