Coronavirus: Councils roll out delegated powers as planning committees cancelled

Local authorities across the country have moved to allow all planning decisions to be taken by officers as committee meetings are cancelled amidst the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has expanded delegated powers over planning decisions. Image: Flickr / David Short
The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has expanded delegated powers over planning decisions. Image: Flickr / David Short

Among those taking such action, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead last week approved delegated powers granting officers “emergency decision-making powers” in areas including planning and licensing.

Manchester City Council and Merton Council are both considering approving similar powers in the coming days.

This unprecedented expansion of delegated powers comes as an increasing number of councils cancel committee meetings to adhere to government guidance on the need for social distancing to stem the spread of COVID-19.

In Windsor and Maidenhead, all committee meetings at the authority were cancelled with immediate effect. But councillors were advised that development management mechanisms including prior notification, the submission of objections, consultations, and the publication of decisions will remain in place.

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Minutes of the full council meeting where the delegated powers were granted state “the only difference” in the process under delegated powers is that “anything that would have been going to a panel for decision would be dealt with by an officer”. 

Councillors queried whether decisions over large or controversial planning applications should be taken by officers. They were advised by officers that the decision was “to either delegate or not to delegate” but that officers, if granted delegated powers, would likely choose not to exercise them on particularly large applications on a delegated basis.

The decision was made on the basis that decision-making by committee would resume as soon as legislation is enacted to allow ‘virtual’ meetings to be held using technology such as videoconferencing. 

Last week, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said he would “consider bringing forward legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period”.

In Manchester, councillors will tomorrow be asked to approve powers for the chief executive to “determine any planning application, listed building consent and tree preservation order application that would otherwise have been decided at a meeting of the committee”.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Merton Council said “it has been suggested that we delegate decision-making powers to officers” in areas including planning. 

“This is not our preferred option,” he said. “We favour maintaining the democratic accountability of member-made decisions by allowing our planning committee to meet digitally. 

“However, we are not able to go down this route until the government legislates to allow for digital council meetings. We are aware that there is an amendment to the emergency coronavirus legislation that will allow us to do this. If and when this amendment is passed into law, we will work to implement digital meetings as soon as possible.”

In Kent, Ashford Borough Council has advised that it is reviewing its planning processes in light of the coronavirus outbreak. “These relate to our delegated powers regarding planning decisions and associated arrangements for planning committees,” it said. 

The authority added that "much of this is contingent on continuing government guidance and legislative change which is anticipated".

Other councils have ruled out an expansion of delegated powers over planning decisions.

Bradford City Council said in a statement: “In view of the sometimes contentious items to be considered, it would not be desirable for officers to take these decisions under delegated powers".

“Items which require a member decision will be postponed until a meeting can be convened.”

In Nottinghamshire, Broxtowe Borough Council has advised that its planning committee will be held in a slimmed down form, “with three members of the ruling group and two Conservative Group members”.

It said: “Councillors will be asked to consider carefully which items are called-in and which can be decided by officer delegation.”

Planners have warned there will be more challenges to come as the planning system is forced to adjust to new ways of working brought on by the coronavirus outbreak.

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