On Saturday 4 April, The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 (the 2020 Regulations) came into force, enabling local authorities to hold meetings remotely by telephone and video conferencing, live webcast, and live interactive streaming.
The regulations, so far as they relate to meetings held by local authorities, apply in England and will apply to all meetings held before 7 May 2021.
Prior to the introduction of the 2020 Regulations, references within the relevant legislation to the "place" at which a meeting is to be held were to a physical place (most typically a council building) with reference to such meeting being "open to the public" being open at such physical location as the meeting is held. By virtue of the regulations, local authority meetings – including planning committees – can now be held in more than one place, including electronic, digital or virtual locations. Likewise, references to meetings being open to the public include the ability for the public to attend remotely.
The new regulations will be in force for a period of 13 months. In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, this period will provide local authorities with the opportunity to carry out a significant pilot into the effectiveness of remote meetings.
Of particular interest will be whether remote meetings foster greater public interest in, and attendance at, planning committee meetings, and so in turn to development and place shaping of local communities.
A further clear benefit of a permanent move to remote meetings, whether in their entirety or partially, will be the increased accessibility of local decision making to those members of the public who might ordinarily be unable to attend meetings in person, due for example to work or caring commitments, disability or lack of transport.
Early anecdotal evidence from frontrunner authorities holding virtual planning committees, including Kensington and Chelsea, Reigate & Banstead and Newcastle-Under-Lyme is that they have been well run, accessible and a success – including in South Somerset despite its first planning committee being interrupted by "trolls".
Given much of the existing legislation governing local authority meetings was drafted at a time when use of technology was less prevalent, the current disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic could (following a period of reflection as to the success, or otherwise, of remote planning committee meetings) provide the catalyst for long term and substantial reform.