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Let’s not lose the benefits of remote planning meetings

Updated: May 22

The High Court ruled this week that virtual planning meetings must stop, to be replaced by face-to-face meetings, from 6 May.

There is a real and legitimate belief that this is a retrograde step and a fear that it will result in the planning system – which is already creaking at the seams – grinding to a halt over the summer.

This doesn’t necessarily reflect a government view that face to face meetings are always preferable to remote meetings – however, councils have only been allowed to hold remote meetings under Covid emergency legislation and this legislation expires on 6 May. New primary legislation is required to make the ability to hold remote meetings permanent, and there is no time in the current legislative calendar to progress this legislation.

This is likely to cause a short term ‘traffic jam’ in the planning system. It’s hard to see councils holding face-to-face planning meetings before 21 June at the earliest – so we will probably go into July with most councils having a 2-month backlog of applications waiting to be determined! It will take some months for this backlog to clear, and I would expect the impact to felt through to the autumn.

The industry generally is lobbying hard for flexibility on this issue and the government is running a consultation on whether, going forward, meetings should be held face to face or remotely (or whether individual local authorities should have the ability to make their own decisions). If you want to respond to this consultation, you can do so here:

Our own experience of remote meetings over the past year – whether they are planning meetings, pre-apps or consultation events – has been broadly extremely positive.

How many times have you been to a face-to-face planning meeting, for example, only to find that the room is full or your application has been bounced from the agenda? If you’re lucky enough to find a seat, acoustics are frequently poor and technology patchy (microphones often don’t work, projectors malfunction, screens are erected in locations where audience members can’t see them, etc)! And you often have to sit through several hours of discussion on other items before your application is considered.

Remote planning meetings generally just work better – and other remote consultation meetings have been easier to organise, attendance has generally been good (and usually better than would have been achieved at a traditional face-to-face event), it has been easy to share documents, agendas and plans and debate and discussion has been (on the whole) open, civilised and constructive!

And, far from restricting accessibility and reducing transparency – which seem to be the key arguments against allowing councils to decide whether or not to hold virtual meetings going forwards – remote meetings can be better, on both issues, than traditional face-to-face planning meetings or consultation events.

That said, there’s still a place for face-to-face meetings and we are looking forward to resuming these in the next weeks. However, virtual meetings and virtual consultations have been shown to work well over the past year – let’s not throw this progress away!

Call Mark Brown on 020 7357 6606/07778 343252 if you want to discuss or need any more information.

30 April 2021

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