Our previous blogs have dealt with changes to CIL and permissions needed to deal with current lockdown. This blog addresses the Government’s short terms fix for local committee decision making and suggests other short, medium and long term solutions to provide a way through the next 9-12 months and then ensure long term resilience.
The Government has now brought Remote Committee regulations into force, overcoming the requirement in the Local Government Act 1972 for meetings to be at one place and so in person. These have the added benefit of qualifying members who attend virtually for the purposes of Section 85 LGA 1972 to avoid by elections due to non-attendance.
Authorities will still need to consider whether amendments are needed to their Constitutions to take advantage of the new arrangements (and if so whether by Full Council resolution or emergency powers already available to the Chief Executive).
The regulations will allow for a one-way public interface (webcasting) as long as those “entitled to attend the meeting in order to exercise a right to speak” are on a two-way connection. The pragmatic advice by the Planning Officers Society on procedures highlights the logistical challenges of full remote participation by large numbers of members and the public.
Having the wider public on a one-way connection will drain out some of the theatre of Committee meetings. That will carry a political cost but confer an administrative benefit. Few people with a real interest in the outcome of placemaking will weep if the number of protracted evening committees which grind towards a vote against officer recommendations along party lines is reduced.
It remains to be seen how many authorities will use the new power to move Committee meetings without notice (regulation 4).
The remote Committee arrangement will end on 7 May 2021. Before then, there will need to be a drive to limit Committee time to the essential minimum to avoid delays to minor and major development alike. That will involve reviewing existing schemes of delegation to establish whether decisions can already be taken without Committee requirement while ensuring that public representations are still factored in.
For major applications, there will be concern that allowing Chief Executive or delegated-decision making on major applications will create a democratic deficit. As well as pure delegation, hybrid forms of decision-making should be considered, for example where:
- Issues and Representations are fully set out in the usual form of committee report;
- Members are briefed in a virtual meeting by the case officer with Q&A with case officer (no public but detailed presentation of representations received);
- Members use online voting to ‘inform’ the delegated decision;
- The Head of Planning having regard to all of the above.