PROJECT: The council’s first fully ‘virtual’ planning committee
ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
By mid-February this year, it was becoming clear that the coronavirus outbreak was likely to have a significant impact on local authority business. At the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, councillor James Husband, chairman of its planning applications committee, met with the council’s deputy head of development management, Derek Taylor, to discuss the implications of the pandemic, in particular how councillors could continue making planning decisions in the face of potential disruption. “If planning committees were to slow down or cease, we’d end up with a huge backlog of cases,” says Taylor. “We had to find a way of keeping things moving.”
Taylor’s concerns about a casework backlog sat alongside a desire to ensure development activity could resume as soon as possible after the crisis, which meant issuing planning decisions. While some councils granted delegated authority to officers over major planning decisions during the coronavirus outbreak, Taylor felt there was an imperative to continue holding committee hearings if possible. “Our residents are used to being involved, and it was unlikely that they were going to be content to sit back for a long period without actually knowing what was going on and having a role to play in it,” he says.
At the end of March, the government passed emergency legislation to allow local councillors to make decisions at ‘virtual’ committees conducted online. At the time, the 1972 Local Government Act required councillors to be physically present at meetings to decide applications, with no provision for remote participation or voting. Regulations implementing the new rules came into force on Saturday 4 April. Just five days later, Kensington and Chelsea held its planning application committee meeting entirely remotely using the Microsoft Teams videoconferencing software. The council’s first fully virtual planning committees, which it believes to have been the first in England, was attended by five councillors and viewed online by about 200 members of the public.
The meeting was preceded by weeks of preparation by planning, IT and governance officers. “I’m a town planner,” says Taylor. “I wouldn’t have had the first idea of how to get together a Teams meeting, coordinating all the members, residents and applicants.” The first task was to decide on the right platform. Taylor had used Zoom before and knew the software was popular among architects. But IT colleagues advised that Microsoft’s platform offered enhanced security, to help avoid any external interference.
Husband, who chaired the meeting, says the council made plans to deal with such scenarios. “If the meeting is hacked, what do you do?” he says. “What happens if whoever is chairing a particular meeting, suddenly their line goes down? Do you know who’s going to take over? These are the kind of practical issues you have to think about beforehand.” The council had to be mindful that its governance procedures were followed even in these exceptional circumstances. “For example, if you stop a meeting, you have to formally adjourn it,” says Husband. “Somebody has to propose that and someone has to second that.”
Steps also had to be taken to ensure residents had the opportunity to participate in line with council rules. Last week, a coalition of organisations, including the London branch of countryside charity the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), called on the government and councils to ensure that the public continues to have a say in planning decisions during the coronavirus outbreak, after highlighting alleged cases where decisions made by virtual committees or under emergency delegated powers were taken with restricted public involvement.
To aid public participation, Husband says officers offered bespoke support when needed. At the council’s second virtual planning applications committee on 23 April, an objector from a local residents’ association received assistance from an officer to ensure that she could speak at the meeting. In case of any problems, another officer was ready to read a statement on her behalf. “We’ve always taken resident participation very seriously,” adds Husband. “I would have a question mark about any virtual planning meetings where the public cannot participate.”
For some councillors, attending a virtual committee meant grappling with videoconferencing technology for the first time. Presenting before a virtual committee was also a new experience for officers. “Officers have got to be mindful of explaining the slides that much more carefully because a lot of people will be watching on their laptops and won’t have the benefit of a big screen in the committee room,” says Taylor, adding that officers rehearsed their advice in advance. “We definitely spent more time preparing for the presentations,” he says.
Husband says chairing a virtual committee requires juggling several different tasks while overseeing proceedings in the usual manner. This includes remembering to mute his microphone when not speaking (to minimise background noise for other participants) and monitoring the meeting chat function where fellow councillors submit requests to speak. “There have been occasions when I’ve rather thought as though I was taking part in an extremely low budget talk radio station,” he says.
Nevertheless, proceedings to date have run relatively smoothly, say Husband and Taylor. When problems do arise, four or five IT and governance officers sit in on the meetings to manage the technical side of the process. “I’d be very nervous without knowing they were there behind the scenes, making sure everything works as it should do,” says Taylor. Husband also pays tribute to the efforts of officers who have ensured the planning system can keep on operating during exceptional circumstances. “I think we’ve managed to carry on decision-making in a sensible way,” he says.
Prepare for unexpected eventualities and ensure that contingency plans are in place to ensure governance procedures are correctly followed in case of disruption. Councillor James Husband suggests discussing beforehand how any unwanted interruptions will be handled and who will take over if the meeting chair has connection problems.
Ensure that officers are sufficiently prepared to brief committee members and the public on applications. Planning officer Derek Taylor suggests that officers should allocate more time than they might normally need to rehearse presentations and bear in mind that more explanation may be required to ensure the committee understands technical details.
Offer assistance to interested parties to ensure they have the same opportunities to participate as they would at a regular committee. Husband says applicants and objectors may need support to use videoconferencing technology and suggests putting plans in place to ensure their views are still heard in the event of any problems.
*NOTE: This article was updated at 12pm on Thursday 7 May to clarify that councillor James Husband is chairman of the council's planning applications committee, not vice-chairman.