News

23 March 2020

COVID-19 - Local government and planning in uncertain times

The Government’s change in plans and advice over the past week to members of the public to work from home where possible and limit travel has resulted in the majority of companies heeding this advice.
 
For many businesses this will be the first time that many companies have experienced an extended period of remote working for their employees.
 
For Local Government, this is a significant challenge. Councils are required by law to regularly hold public meetings, including Full and Annual Council as well as Planning Committee meetings. Taking into consideration the difficulties that many Councils will face in holding these meetings at a time when Government advice urges people to limit interactions and abide by social distancing, as well as many Councillors being at high risk due to their age, the Government is considering a number of temporary measures that could somewhat relax the rules.
 
Initial suggestions over the past week was that some planning committees in London Boroughs would go ahead, with strict rules on the distance between members observed.  However, as the week has progressed this seems unlikely.
 
Of course, until the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government outlines clear direction for Local Authorities, many are currently considering their options so that they can deliver on their obligations but also ensure the safety of both Councillors and their staff.  The Government is, at present, putting through a series of immediate emergency legislation that will address the pubic health pandemic, but we anticipate similar legislation on how Local Government conducts meetings.  However, as with the current situation the Civil Service itself is adapting to remote working and although there may be a delay in the emergency legislation being passed, Senior Policy Advisors are working hard to ensure that clarity is provided to Local Authorities as soon as possible.

Remote meetings
 
The option of conducting meetings whereby members of the public dial into the meeting remotely are being considered by some London Boroughs which would enable them to continue to hold meetings yet still follow Government guidelines concerning restricting physical interactions.  This would need to be allowed through legislation which currently requires locally elected Councillors to be present at meetings to vote.  This would also be dependent on the technology that some local authorities currently have. From the conversations that Cascade has had, we know that IT is one of their biggest challenges.

Delegated decisions by officers
 
Considering the political nature of Local Government, which at times can be much more sensitive to public reaction than Westminster, the decision to delegate planning decisions to officers is always carefully examined.  At present, many authorities are considering delegating power to officers so that planning decisions can still be made without physically holding Planning Committee meetings. The London Borough of Bromley, which held an emergency meeting recently, has decided that all planning decisions which cannot be deferred will be delegated to the Assistant Director Development Control and Planning, but only where a majority of members of the committee or sub-committee who would have made the decision to support the proposed recommendation.

Closed meetings
 
The option exists for Councils to conduct certain meetings behind closed doors, excluding the public.  Councils already have the power to do this when they need to keep information confidential or there is a risk of misbehaviour and they need to maintain orderly conduct.  In light of the ever-changing situation due to COVID-19, many Councils may argue that they must meet in private so as to conduct the meetings properly.
 
Postpone meetings
 
Finally, there is the option for Local Authorities to cancel or postpone meetings. For example:

- LB Richmond upon Thames have cancelled their Planning Committee on 1 April.
- Canterbury City Council have cancelled their Herne Bay and Whitstable Forums for this month.
- RB Kingston upon Thames has taken the decision to cancel all its scheduled council and committee meetings until 11 May.
- RB Kensington & Chelsea has suggested progressing S106 agreements to help fast track application for when the decision-making process is revised.  
- LB Southwark have postponed their planning committees scheduled for tomorrow and the 31 March. 

Last weekend, London Councils, the representative body for London’s 32 borough councils and the City of London Corporation, issued guidance for Councils to suspended all but critical decisions over the coming weeks so that they can focus on delivering only critical services. Councillor Peter John OBE, who has agreed to continue as Chair of London Councils during this period, explained in an email to Councillors that it is important local government continues to “give confidence to our residents and central government at this critical time.”

However, even after the Government followed the Electoral Commission’s advice to postpone the London Mayoral and local elections scheduled for May of this year, some Councils have also had to take the difficult decision to cancel local elections that were due to be held sooner than this. Thanet District Council made the last-minute decision to cancel the Newington by-election that was scheduled for Thursday 19 March, after receiving assurance that the Crown Prosecution Service wouldn’t prosecute the Returning Officer for doing so.
 
Therefore, it is also clear that for local authorities their planning function remains of huge importance.  This has resulted in local authorities reviewing their IT equipment and the way in which they conduct meetings in the future.  These are unprecedented times for local authorities, with the recent decisions taken by some to close public parks. However, from discussions that Cascade has had with many local authorities, while the situation is fast moving, there is a genuine and clear attempt to get back to business as normal (as possible).  Regeneration and growth will be even more essential at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic to support the UK economy.

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