Virtual planning committee meetings – top tips for local planning authorities


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As more LPAs switch to virtual mediums to ensure decisions continue to be made fairly and with adequate public participation below are tips on how to ensure the meeting is a success.

With COVID-19 not abating any time soon, LPAs must familiarise themselves with the available technology quickly and efficiently. A few LPAs have already held their first planning committee meetings to varying degrees of success but all can be learned from.

Information available in advance

Any successful meeting is the result of good preparation and in a public arena such as planning committee meetings this is key, especially now. LPAs must take steps to make it even easier for the public to 1) locate and review committee agendas and planning reports and 2) register to speak ahead of a planning committee meeting on their websites, noting that many may be accessing this information in this way for the first time. LPAs should consider sending emails to frequent attendees as reminders, or including a link to the documents on their Planning homepage, for example. Furthermore, the invitation or link to join the planning committee meeting itself must be easy to find on an LPA's website if it is to ensure that those that want to join, can.
 
Business as normal

As strange as it may be to be discussing major planning applications from your new office-at-home, all those participating, including the chairman and any members, the planning officers and any legal participant(s) must do everything they would do as if the meeting was being held in the Council's chamber, as far as possible. In one recent planning committee meeting, the chairman announced that no-one had registered to speak for the first 2 planning applications but neglected to make this announcement for the remaining 3. A simple point but a procedural one nonetheless that cannot become commonplace, particularly if dealing with contentious planning applications.

This type of omission can be easily avoided. Chairmans are experienced in leading meetings, but everyone is having to make adjustments in the current circumstances. Chairmans may find it useful to have in front of them a checklist of procedural points to guarantee due process is followed and a fair debate is had.
 
Third party representations

It is important that members of the public have the opportunity to participate in the virtual meetings as they would be able to in normal meetings. We have seen good use of videos made by third parties that have been submitted and played to the virtual committee. However, some members of the public have sought to take the opportunity to showcase views of sites and record traffic noise as part of their videos. Others have put forward detailed PowerPoint presentations incorporating pictures. All such submissions need to be carefully screened before they are shown to ensure that no new evidence is being given that would otherwise not be permitted.
 
The committee

In terms of the committee itself, it is useful to ensure that there are more members participating than are required to ensure the Committee is quorate, just in case a member's internet access dies during the debate. It is also useful in advance of the meeting to ensure that no member has any pecuniary interest that would preclude them from voting or debating any item on the agenda to ensure the committee is quorate for each item on the agenda. Finally, it is useful to have a rehearsal of the technology to allow committee members to feel comfortable using the software which may be new to them. Many LPAs are using Zoom and it is helpful if members are shown how to set backgrounds to their displays to avoid having the inner sanctuary of their sitting rooms on display.
 
Whose voice is that?

The public, even if they regularly attend planning committee meetings normally, will not easily be able to identify a person's voice in a virtual meeting, especially as often you can only see the PowerPoint presentation on the screen – therefore a large part of a meeting is often undertaken via audio only.

Therefore and if logistically possible, the person speaking should be on screen. If this is not possible, it is then imperative that each time, before anyone speaks, each person introduces themselves. It does not take long and avoids confusion amongst all participants (even fellow members). An inconsistent approach was adopted in a recent committee meeting which made it challenging to follow any debate or for a productive debate to be held. Members should be asked to speak clearly and perhaps a little slower than normal to avoid the content of the debate being lost.

The above is particularly essential on a contentious or major planning application, where intense debate or legal clarification may be required.
 
Checking presentation plans

The plans used will inevitably form part of a planning officer's PowerPoint presentation for a planning application being discussed in any planning committee meeting. The key is to remember that no matter how clear it appears on the PowerPoint, its appearance will be different during a live stream. Often on a live stream a moving cursor cannot be seen so if an officer is pointing out a matter that may not be visible. Therefore it is helpful if the officer is aware of this and can talk through the plan as well.

Questions have been raised by members who cannot see the moving cursor to tell what is being discussed, no matter how hard the planning officer tries to use their cursor to highlight something on a plan! LPAs should make arrangements to ensure plans appear larger where possible and for example, that thicker red lines are used to highlight application sites on location plans or put annotations on plans to matters they wish to point out.
 
IT personnel on standby

It's apparent that those on screen do not comprise all those involved in ensuring the virtual meeting runs smoothly. Where possible, always have IT personnel on hand and available for immediate assistance should the technology go awry or if a member of the public has a question about the technology being used, remembering that the public will all have very different levels of technological knowledge. So far, it seems Microsoft Teams and Zoom are the go-to mediums and have garnered mostly good feedback, with the required flexibility and capabilities to accommodate large numbers of participants. To ensure due process is adhered to and potential grounds for challenge avoided, the priority should be to avoid any cut-offs in the live stream at important moments such as when members vote on an application, but if they do occur, a near instant recovery can be made and votes repeated if necessary.
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