We examine the role of local authorities during COVID-19, and offer guidance on how to run a robust virtual planning committee meeting.

“We ask you to take an innovative approach, using all options available to you to continue your service… we encourage you to explore every opportunity to use technology to ensure that discussions and consultations can go ahead.”
Steve Quartermain, then Chief Planner,

Steve Quartermain’s final newsletter as Chief Planner for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government not surprisingly focused on the challenge to ‘business as usual’ posed by COVID-19. But his message to the planning profession was clear – ‘keep calm and carry on’. With great challenge, comes real opportunities; to evoke change, challenge the norm, and review the efficiency of existing systems.

From 4 April 2020, holding virtual public meetings became a temporary, legislative right. Government recognised the importance of carrying on, and by providing this change in statute, the message could not be clearer. As Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick said, “local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that.” (2)

As the Planning Inspectorate and the Planning and Environment Bar Association have rightly made clear, public trust and belief in the system is more important than ever. It is inevitable that there will be changes to tried and tested systems. With this in mind, it is paramount that all involved, including the public, remain confident that the planning system remains robust, fair and legally sound.

So, what can local authorities do to ensure an inclusive, engaging and successful planning committee session is carried out?

  • Prepare. Test the platform first. Set up a trial meeting with colleagues to ensure any links work. If there is an option to dial in by telephone, make sure you’ve identified the room in your home with the best and most consistent signal. If you can, dial in five minutes before the meeting is set to start, and always have a back-up plan in place.
  • Ask the audience. Where possible, consult with them on their preferred digital platform. With endless options available to you, take the time out to try out a couple of these platforms with your family, friends and colleagues. What works for you? Then open it up to the floor – within reason. Navigating new technology is comparable with learning a new language, so try and make it as seamless as possible where you can.
  • Good chairing is key. Set out the ground rules at the beginning. Agree and circulate an agenda in advance. Other than those speaking, other participants should remain on mute. Making sure that everyone has their turn to speak is more important than ever when you’re not in the same physical space as your colleagues; body language makes up more than half of our communication. With this element removed, it’s more difficult to ensure that everyone has got exactly what they need from the meeting.
  • Use the messaging services that come with conference call facilities. Platforms like Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom also have a messaging service for those that are participating in the meeting. An effective method is to state at the beginning that questions can be put in this messaging service, and will be addressed at the end of the discussion. This makes sure that everyone receives fair representation, and that each participant has their concerns addressed.
  • Safeguarding. Password protect sensitive meetings and ensure only intended audiences have access to these sessions.

For more guidance on how to successfully keep infrastructure projects moving during this challenging time, read our digital engagement blog.

1 – MHCLG, Planning Update Newsletter, March 2020
2 – Gov.uk, MHCLG, April 2020