The filmmaker Micheal Moore has been quoted as saying that “Democracy is not a spectator sport, it's a participatory event. If we don't participate in it, it ceases to be a democracy.”
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, democracy at all levels has been put to the test. The trials and tribulations of Jackie Weaver and the Handforth Parish Council do not perhaps show it working in its best light (although it could be considered excellent spectator sport!), but the recent elections across the UK showed that democracy can continue almost seamlessly, despite the pandemic.
And the planning process has not been immune from the democratic challenges posed by coronavirus. In the early stages of the first lock down, planning authorities had to grapple with how to deliver continuity of decision making on planning applications whilst not impacting on the quality of those decisions, given the importance of these in terms of improving the quality of people’s lives and supporting economic recovery. Deliberations primarily focussed on making changes to schemes of delegation (giving officers more powers to determine applications without referral to committees) and on using technology to facilitate the holding of virtual committee meetings, with pros and cons to both of these options, and authorities across the country having chosen different approaches.
Changes to schemes of delegation were seen by some authorities to be the quicker and easier option to implement as an immediate response to the lock down, while still providing scope for applications to be referred to either an urgent business committee or a future planning committee meeting if required. The Royal Town Planning Institute has also been supportive of allowing chartered, professional planners to make key decisions, with such decisions to be in accordance with the development plan, which has itself been subject to substantial public consultation and scrutiny. However, while the increased use of delegated powers can undoubtedly facilitate quicker decision making and allow committees to focus on the most difficult and controversial decisions, it has not been without its critics. Manchester City Council notably came under fire with concerns that, due to the suspension of the planning committee, emergency powers could be used by the Council’s Chief Executive to pass controversial decisions, such as the UK’s largest indoor arena, behind closed doors, bringing into question how democratic such decision-making is. It should though be noted that, with over 96% of planning applications in Scotland already determined by officers under delegated powers, this response to the pandemic was unlikely to have a significant impact.
In terms of virtual committees, the first challenge for planning authorities was that, in the early days of the first lock down, Councils could not legally hold meetings which excluded the public. That does not of course in itself necessarily preclude virtual meetings, and indeed some Councils quickly made the decision that holding a virtual meeting and subsequently publishing a recording of it was in effect no different from members of the public either attending a meeting or watching it live in terms of fulfilling the requirement for meetings to be open to the public. However, not all Councils took this view until the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 formally amended the requirements, with paragraph 13(3) establishing that:
“The public are to be excluded from a meeting of a local authority whenever it is likely that, if members of the public were present, there would be a real and substantial risk to public health due to infection or contamination with coronavirus.”
With the principle of virtual meetings having been established in legislation, Councils then had to consider how holding such meetings met with their standing orders, what amendments would be required to comply with the new legislation, which video conference platform to adopt, and how such meetings would be managed to ensure that they continued to be open and transparent and did not increase the risk of legal challenge.
More than 12 months on, it’s clear that there are some considerable advantages to virtual committees, including, for example:;
- efficiency savings in terms of time and travel costs for committee members and Council staff;
- increased democratic participation through interested parties no longer having to take time out of work or caring responsibilities to attend a meeting and/or to pay for travel and parking;
- enabling those with disabilities to participate more easily;
- reduced environmental impacts through less travel, particularly for Councils with large geographical areas; and
- allowing people to watch a recorded meeting in their own time.
There are though also some disadvantages which include:
- differences in internet connection speeds and quality potentially disadvantaging some areas and individuals;
- not all members of the public are able to, want to, or have access to the use of the necessary technology;
- not all meetings are live, some can only be accessed the following day;
- debate can be more restricted;
- for new committees, it may be harder for Councillors to get know and understand each other for their shared role in decision making; and, of course
- humans are inherently social beings with social interaction and body language being an important aspect of understanding people’s thoughts and emotions, something which is clearly absent from virtual committees.
On balance though, having listened in to, and taken part in, a number of virtual meetings over the last year, we generally think that Councils have adapted well to this new way of working and that the benefits outweigh the disbenefits. The future of virtual committees is, however, unclear.
In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament passed regulations in March this year to extend the Coronavrius Acts, including continuing to allow virtual committee meetings until 30 September 2021, but the equivalent provisions in England (as set out in the Coronavirus Act (2020)) came to an end on 7 May 2021, meaning that committees have once again had to meet physically since that date. When challenged by a number of parties (Hertfordshire County Council, Lawyers In Local Government and the Association Of Democratic Services Officers), a High Court judgement (issued in April this year) found that, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, references to “meetings” in the Local Government Act 1972 could only be interpreted to mean “in person meetings taking place at a particular geographical location”. This has led to concerns that such an approach will have an immediate, albeit relatively short term, impact in terms of slowing down the development process as planning authorities put in place measures to ensure that such meetings can be held safely. But perhaps more importantly, there are concerns that the decision will result in the loss of flexibility in terms of how committee meetings can be held, and that may now be considered to stifle wider engagement in the planning process.
In remains to be seen what the future for virtual committees will be in Scotland but we would hope that there continues to be some scope to be able to engage in the decision making process virtually, at least for members of the public, so it continues to be a participatory and democratic event.
Meantime, to find out about how aurora planning can assist you in any aspect of the planning process, please visit www.auroraplanning.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And to receive future blogs and updates by email, please click here.
Thanks for reading!
Pippa and Maggie