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High Court spurns bid to continue virtual planning meetings

Words: Laura Edgar
Virtual meeting / iStock-508060428

A High Court judge has dismissed a legal challenge that sought to continue local authority remote meetings beyond 6 May.

Under emergency legislation – the Coronavirus Act 2020 – planning committee meetings have been authorised to be held virtually during restrictions implemented to stem the spread of Covid-19 – as have other local authority meetings.

The 1972 Local Government Act requires councillors to be present to decide applications. The Coronavirus Act 2020 makes provisions for “persons to attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in, local authority meetings without all of the persons, or without any of the persons, being together in the same place”. This comes to an end on 6 May.

The Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and Hertfordshire County Council had sought to extend this. The bodies included an application to the court to expedite proceedings to guarantee that a decision is made before the deadline.

Yesterday (28 April), the president of the Queen's Bench Division, Dame Victoria Sharp, and Mr Justice Chamberlain dismissed the challenge.

The judgment document notes a survey by the Lawyers in Local Government Group that found 75 per cent of its members were in support of hybrid meetings continuing. In support of their reasoning they cited increased democratic participation and benefits to the climate. However, some respondents maintained that some meetings in particular should not be held remotely, including full council and planning and licensing committee meetings.

In October 2020, the local authority associations wrote to the housing secretary setting out the “clear case” for extending the ability for councils to hold meetings flexibly beyond 6 May. The letter acknowledged that primary legislation would be required.

The housing secretary responded by saying that primary legislation would be required but added that “there is no option to extend the current regulations under the Coronavirus Act 2020 as section 78 (3) contains the sunset date of 7 May 2021”, although he appreciated the arguments put forward and would consider the case.

Local government minister Luke Hall wrote to local authorities in England confirming that the flexibility regulations would end as intended. He highlighted the Covid-19 safe guidance, which sets out ways to minimise the risk of face-to-face readings.

The court said: “In our view, once the flexibility regulations cease to apply, such meetings must take place at a single, specified geographical location; attending a meeting at such a location means physically going to it; and being ‘present’ at such a meeting involves physical presence at that location. We recognise that there are powerful arguments in favour of permitting remote meetings. But, as the consultation documents show, there are also arguments against doing so. The decision whether to permit some or all local authority meetings to be conducted remotely, and if so, how, and subject to what safeguards, involves difficult policy choices on which there is likely to be a range of competing views. These choices have been made legislatively for Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and for Wales by the Senedd. In England, they are for Parliament, not the courts.”

Responding to the judgment, John Austin, chair of ADSO, said: “In view of the level of support for the option of remote meetings, the LLG and ADSO are very disappointed at the decision of the court to refuse to support the updated interpretation we proposed which would have enabled councils to continue providing the option of remote attendance.

“We recognise that this will be a great disappointment for many across the sector and we will now direct our energy, and the momentum that has been generated, into lobbying government to quickly bring forward the necessary legislation to overcome this impasse and to ensure that councils have local choice to determine the methodology by which meetings can take place. Not just during the pandemic, but for the long term, in perpetuity. The government’s call for evidence is currently open. It is vitally important that you respond to that call and ensure our voice continues to be heard.”

The RTPI believes that a change in the law is needed to guarantee that virtual planning meetings in England can continue.

Chief executive Victoria Hills called on the government to introduce primary legislation as “a matter of urgency” to allow virtual meetings to continue while also exploring how a hybrid model could operate.

“Virtual meetings have been shown to deliver cost savings and there are many examples of how they have increased participation rates in the democratic process. Bringing these benefits to an abrupt end would be a huge retrograde step, slowing the decision-making process while many lockdown measures remain in place.

“More broadly, the planning white paper in England proposed harnessing digital technology to improve the planning process to engage communities and mitigate climate change. RTPI research conducted with Grayling found that over half of the UK public want to be involved in changes to their local community post-pandemic.

“The RTPI believes that virtual meetings as part of a hybrid approach could be the key to unlocking wider engagement in the planning process, while also encouraging a more diverse group of people to stand for election as councillors.”

The judgment can be found here.

The governemnt's call for evidence on remote meetings can be found here.

Read more:

Covid-19: Virtual planning committee meetings to end

Legal challenge for continuation of virtual planning meetings is lodged

Report: Digital engagement should be built into start of planning process

Image credit | iStock