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Communities must have a voice in virtual planning decisions

Community groups invited to monitor public participation in planning during the COVID-19 crisis

17 April 2020
Commonplace is a popular online engagement platform
Commonplace is a popular online engagement platform


Civic Voice, the national charity for the civic movement, has asked communities and local authorities to provide it with feedback on how new regulations for determining planning applications during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak are being implemented, reports The Planner.

In March, the Coronavirus Act was fast-tracked through Parliament. It 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”.

the fear is that these new rules will make it much harder for communities to share views and that we might see more mediocre or poor schemes "nodded through" without the usual proper scrutiny

The regulations came into effect on 4 April, and apply to meetings taking place, or required to be held, before 7 May 2021.

Civic Voice is seeking to ensure that communities are engaged in the planning process from the outset, and wants stakeholders in the planning system to feed into its research to understand the effect the temporary regulations may have on community participation in the planning process.

The 1972 Local Government Act requires councillors to be present to decide applications, but the act’s regulations override this during the pandemic. English local authorities can hold public meetings virtually, by phone or video link, during the lockdown.

Says Civic Voice: These powers will allow councils to hold “virtual planning committees” whilst the “physical” is not possible. Civic Voice’s preference is to support councils meeting in a virtual manner, as opposed to delegating all decisions to officers. It is something that civic societies and community groups need to be aware about and we will be thinking about the implications as to how communities can continue to have a voice.

Civic Voice Director, Ian Harvey, says: 'Community groups need to be aware as to how existing and emerging technologies can give them a meaningful role in a 21st century planning system, and gives an overview of the resources available to engage digitally on the Civic Voice blog.

Sarah James, policy and membership development, Civic Voice, said: 'We accept that these are short term but necessary amendments to ensure that the planning system can continue to function. Planning decisions will need to continue through this period so that the planning system is well placed to play its vital role in supporting the recovery of the economy. We are aware of some community groups that have called for decisions to be halted during this time, but we do not share this view.

'We are confident that the government is not wanting to put barriers in the way of communities participating in the planning process. Nonetheless, the fear is that these new rules will make it much harder for communities to share views and that we might see more mediocre or poor schemes "nodded through" without the usual proper scrutiny. It is unlikely that there will be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, so we are calling on community groups across the country to help us monitor and review how local planning authorities are adapting and responding to the new legislation.'

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