MHCLG call for evidence on local authority remote meetings – Law Society response

The proposals

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) was seeking views about the use of the arrangements for local authorities to meet remotely or in hybrid format during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The remote meeting arrangements were set out in the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 (and the equivalent regulations for Wales and Northern Ireland) under powers granted by section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020.

These regulations came into force on 4 April 2020 and applied to meetings taking place before 7 May 2021.

MHCLG reports that it’s received representations making the case for a permanent express provision for remote meetings.

The call for evidence asks interested parties about the pros and cons of making such arrangements permanent in England and the use of the arrangements to date.

Our view

Whilst our comments relate specifically to planning committee meetings, some of the points we make are also likely to be applicable to other local authority remote meetings.

Other considerations may apply in relation to other types of local authority remote meetings and in other contexts than planning decision-taking.

Access and participation

We’re aware that a main criticism of remote meetings is the potential barrier to access to justice for reasons including lack of access to the required technology.

However, from our experience, in the context of planning, remote meetings actually increase access and participation for interested parties.

Until now, people would need to travel to planning committee meetings and full council meetings in relation to some matters/decisions such as local plan adoption.

These meetings could last several days, which meant that those working full-time or with childcare responsibilities were at a disadvantage compared to those who were able to make the time to attend.

Hybrid meetings

We favour hybrid meetings (a mix of in-person and remote meetings to be determined by the relevant local authority on a case-by-case basis) as the solution going forward.

Giving participants the opportunity to log into shorter meetings remotely has largely had a positive impact on access to the planning system.

Given the planning white paper’s commitment to the rollout of an increasingly digital planning system, we consider it a retrograde step to no longer permit remote meetings, especially when the experience seems to have been broadly welcomed across the sector.

In Wales, planning meetings started to take place remotely before the onset of COVID-19 and this has generally worked well, even in rural areas where connection issues may be more prevalent.

Remote meetings are statutorily set to continue in Wales and Scotland, and we hope that England will follow suit.

Particularly in relation to the white paper’s proposal to implement a new zoning system in England within a fairly short timescale, we take the view that allowing remote meetings will help mitigate longer local plan processes that may occur as we navigate the new system.

An optimal standard model for meetings could be to have a mixture of members online and in the room with the public attending remotely.

Next steps

This call for evidence closes on 17 June.

As local authorities have now had extensive experience of conducting remote meetings over the past year, this call for evidence is an opportunity for government to understand these experiences and inform a decision about whether to make these arrangements permanent.

Any permanent change would require primary legislation, and such passage would depend on agreement of parliament and the timetabling and pressures of parliamentary business.

Read the call for evidence on the GOV.UK website