Safeguard the public voice in planning during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 is causing widespread disruption to the UK planning system, which is there to ensure that the development and use of land is in the public interest. Recent legislation gave councils new powers to change the way they take planning decisions. This could undermine the public voice in planning and calls into question levels of transparency and democratic oversight of planning decisions.

01 Jun 2020

A key change concerns how planning authorities determine planning applications, with a shift towards virtual planning committee meetings. In some authorities, that shift has also prompted an increase in delegated decision making – where council officers decide a planning application, rather than elected Councillors.

Delegation is common practice for applications of a minor, non-contentious nature. However, for major or controversial applications, the public and democratic scrutiny afforded by a well-run planning committee is lost where a decision is made behind closed doors. 

The recently-passed Coronavirus Act means the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person has been temporarily suspended. As an alternative, local authorities have been given new powers to hold meetings remotely using video or teleconferencing facilities. 

Local authorities are responding to these changes in a variety of different ways. Some are re-assembling their planning committees online, while others are making key planning decisions in closed meetings or increasing delegation to unelected planning officers.

Depending on how the regulations are interpreted, the new arrangements for local authority meetings could result in fair access to the planning system becoming a post-code lottery for up to a year.

It's paramount that the rights of the public to participate, have their voice heard in planning decisions and be kept informed, are maintained and not diminished. Changes to the system should look to safeguard – and not undermine – transparency, democracy and participative opportunities. 

Read our blog for more on the impact of coronavirus on the planning system.

Call on your local planning authority to safeguard the role of local communities in the planning process

Friends of the Earth has signed a joint statement with CPRE London, Just Space and London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies calling on the Secretary of State and Local Planning Authorities to safeguard the role of local communities in the planning process, and asking them to respect six key principles.

We have also jointly written to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, asking him to safeguard the public voice in planning under COVID-19.

Now we need you to contact your Local Planning Authority (your council) and ask them to safeguard the role of local communities in the planning process and respect these same six key principles.

We've written a model letter to help you. We suggest you address it to your council leader and the chair of your local planning committee (and cc the planning committee members and the chair of the council’s scrutiny committee). You can find the contact details for these individuals on your council’s website (often under the ‘Your council’ section).

The six principles are:

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 extending deadlines attached to the determination of planning applications and responding to consultations.

6. Any public referenda or votes associated with Estate Regeneration [1] should be put on hold until there is a reliable, democratic way to vote, as has happened with the referenda for Neighbourhood Plans.

What other action could you take?

Already written to your Local Planning Authority about the six principles? Wondering what other action to take?

1. Submit a written statement to the council’s cabinet meeting or full council meeting, and where you are aware of issues, ask them what measures they plan to take to address them. This is a good way of ensuring that the council’s commitment to the six principles is a matter of public record and will also ensure other councillors see your statement.

You can adapt the model letter very simply for this purpose. There is no set standard procedure for submitting a statement or question. It varies from council to council. You can find out how to proceed from your council’s website, visiting the relevant meeting/ committee pages, or by contacting your council’s Democratic Services team. Check with them for deadlines and, most crucially, whether and how your question will receive a formal reply.

2. Monitor the situation: your council may be going through teething problems, taking time to adapt to and implement new arrangements, which is understandable. On the other hand failing to address practices which disempower elected members, communities and the public is not. If you find shortcomings, ask your council to consider amending their Standing Order/Constitution/protocol to address these.

3. Watch and take part in a virtual committee meeting (where you have comments to make on a particular application that is under consideration – that is assuming your council virtual meeting provides this facility, if so you will need to register in advance to speak).

[1] This refers to those situations where a local authority is looking to regenerate a council estate, or former council estate, and as part of this process a ballot of tenants/residents takes place.