The Government has confirmed that from Friday 7 May, local councils in England will no longer be able to hold meetings online.
Historically, planning decisions were made by councillors in face-to-face meetings under the 1972 Local Government Act. Under emergency legislation, the Coronavirus Act 2020 allows “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 legislation which authorised virtual meetings following the introduction of social distancing measures brought on by the spread of Covid 19 comes to an end on 6th May 2021.
The Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and Hertfordshire County Council sought a judgement from the High Court to enable such meetings to take place within existing legislation. The ruling by Dame Victoria Sharp, President of the Queen’s Bench Division, and Mr. Justice Chamberlain concluded: “The Secretary of State was correct in November 2016 and July 2019 to say that primary legislation would be required to allow local authority “meetings” under the 1972 Act to take place remotely. 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.”
In dismissing the claim, the judgment refers to a number of places within the Local Government Act 1972 which refers to the ‘place’ of such meetings and to people being ’present’ at them and to the persons who may ‘attend’. It does however recognise that there “are powerful arguments in favour of permitting remote meetings.”
Responding to the judgement, John Austin 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.”
Sarah Smith, Senior Planner at Chapman Lily Planning states “This is an unfortunate ruling for the planning industry. Online meetings have enabled people to attend and access meetings more easily than in person helping to keep communities engaged and mitigate climate change. The primary legislation needs to be updated as soon as possible to include digital engagement processes in line with the Planning White Paper. In the interim, the issue will be finding venues big enough to provide suitable participation for such meetings, while adhering to social distancing measures which remain in place.”
For more information on how this might impact future planning applications, please contact the Chapman Lily Planning.