Virtual Reality? Reflections on planning committees and other public meetings moving online

28th January, 2021

Since the rapid transition to online meetings from the first lockdown in March, Pro Vision has been involved in many virtual meetings, covering planning committees, planning appeals, local plan examinations and parish council meetings.  

Local planning authorities scrambled to amend their constitutions to allow online meetings and the Planning Inspectorate soon followed, to ensure that the planning system kept going as the pandemic unfolded.

We were involved in some of the very first online meetings, including Slough Borough Council’s first ever virtual meeting in May, where we won resolution for approval of a scheme of 75 flats on a previously developed employment site in a regeneration area.

While it was important and appreciated that local planning authorities sought to minimise the delay to their planning committee schedules, our experiences of virtual meetings have been mixed.

In one case, the weblink to the planning officer presenting our application was briefly lost during the member’s debate. By the time he returned only a few minutes later, members had concocted and agreed an extra planning condition (regarding parking restrictions, despite the issue being covered in the application already).

In another example, the committee chairman commenced on a vote on our application without having confirmed a recommendation.  The vote was restarted but half of the members had already revealed their position.

We noted that planning officers often struggled to coordinate the member’s debate and keep the focus on material planning issues.  For all participants, virtual meetings make it difficult to read body language and appreciate the atmosphere ‘in the room’.

However, there have also been several positive experiences, where in some LPA areas we have been invited to deliver virtual presentations to Councillors and Committees.  These meetings have been beneficial, enabling us to select the images and plans that we wish to present, and tell the story of the proposal as it was designed to be told, highlighting the benefits of the development and how any impacts are to be mitigated.  Several such meetings have also included a question and answer session between Officers, the committee and us on behalf of the applicant.

We were also heavily involved in one of the first virtual local plan examinations, the Tonbridge and Malling Local Plan.

The two planning Inspectors conducted the examination from their homes, with strict rules for participants.  All verbal contributions were directed through one of the Inspectors, as is the norm. Overall, there were few technological glitches, other than the occasional problems with raising of the virtual hand to request an invitation to speak, and the common phrase of many virtual meetings that “you’re on mute!”.  In some respects, this arrangement gave more focus to the event and cut out distractions such as heckling from members of the public or officer’s scrambling to find examination documents.

We have also experienced our first appeal hearing online in recent weeks, which concluded without any significant glitches, other than an instance of the Officers video links being left open inadvertently during a break, and we have a virtual inquiry lined-up in March in the London Borough of Harrow.

Are virtual meetings here to stay?  Once we return to something like normality, we expect that we will see a rapid return to physical meetings such as public meeting in most cases.  Virtual meetings have enabled the planning system to keep moving during the pandemic, and some events, such as Case Management Conferences for appeals, and application meetings with key stakeholders may continue to be held online to save time and money.  Overall,  as trailed in the Planning White Paper over the summer, we do expect to see greater digitalisation of the planning system including greater use of online communications.  This is likely to include more live streaming of meetings and more online consultation events, rather than the traditional village hall meeting.