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Measures needed to safeguard public voice during Covid-19 pandemic

Words: Laura Edgar
Pubic voice / iStock-645261630

Campaigners have encouraged all local authorities to adopt measures to safeguard the public voice in planning decisions made under temporary legislation meant to enable the planning function to continue during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

The calls come after the government issued regulations to facilitate English local authorities to hold public meetings virtually, by phone or video link.

The campaigners (see box) believe that councils are interpreting regulations in “very different ways”, with some issuing decisions under delegated authority or not publicising meetings.

The campaigners:

  • CPRE London
  • CPRE, the countryside charity
  • Friends of the Earth
  • Just Space
  • London Forum of Civic & Amenity Societies
  • Town and Country Planning Association

In a letter to housing secretary Robert Jenrick, they say: “While these unprecedented times rightly call for innovation, the current ad hoc access to the democratic and participatory process creates an unfair ‘postcode lottery’ which could result in long-term damage to the interests of local communities, to the wellbeing of vulnerable citizens and to the environment.”

Open meetings of elected councillors, with speaking rights for applicants and objectors offer fairness and transparency, which is “as fundamental to every local authority’s constitution as they are to the correct operation of the planning system”.

The group asks Jenrick to do more to “explicitly recognise the important role of communities in decision-making and to highlight the risks of failing to engage with them”, and for the government to safeguard the role of communities in the planning process.

There are six key principles that the group wants the government to ask local authorities to respect:

  1. No planning application normally decided by a committee should be decided using delegated or executive powers.
  2. Virtual meetings should be reliably live-streamed on video, with speaking rights for public objectors/third-party representatives, as with normal committee meetings.
  3. Councils should produce a report setting out how, under the Covid-19 regulations, they will follow best practice for the involvement of communities, particularly disadvantaged communities and those with less access to technology and broadband.
  4. Councils should create, and promote widely, a designated website page giving full information on upcoming meetings and consultations, providing clear guidance to communities and third parties on how to take part.
  5. Councils should look to extend deadlines attached to the determination of planning applications and responding to consultations.
  6. Any public referendums or votes associated with estate regeneration should be put on hold until there is a reliable, democratic way to vote, as has happened with the referendums for neighbourhood plans.

Neil Sinden, director of CPRE London, said: “While the planning system has an important role to play in helping the economy after the Covid-19 crisis, we must not undermine the democratic decision-making process. Local community and environmental groups often play a valuable part in informing and improving planning decisions, helping to secure development that is in the wider public interest."

Kate Gordon, senior planner, Friends of the Earth, added: “If present circumstances have anything to teach us it is the need for planning to give greater priority to people, nature, and the environment. It is also vital that communities continue to play a role in decisions that will affect not just their neighbourhood, but the wider environment for years to come.”       

Image credit | iStock