Following the introduction of recent legislation allowing committee meetings to be held remotely, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) hosted one of England’s first fully virtual planning committees last week. Firstplan followed the proceedings on Thursday evening (9 April 2020) and found the committee to be well run, clear and importantly, accessible.
With the Town Hall meeting room sat empty, the Planning Applications Committee was conducted via the Microsoft Teams software. A link to the meeting was published 24 hours prior to commencement on the Council’s website and went live at 18:30 hours without delay. Microsoft Teams allowed access to the meeting using a personal or an anonymous account. It was not possible to view how many other attendees were present or the names of those also watching. It is our understanding that the committee could be viewed by those using a computer, laptop, tablet or mobile phone.
To get proceedings started, the Committee Chairman (Councillor James Husband) appeared via webcam for a brief period to introduce each of the four additional Councillors and various case officers present. After this, all correspondence between Councillors was conducted via microphone only. All of the Councillors present were able to communicate clearly and fluently to one another and to the committee audience, whom remained muted throughout and were unable to submit questions or comments. Following introductions, the meeting went on to mirror a normal committee format with the reading of the committee agenda, declarations of interest and the signing of previous meeting minutes.
The Planning Application Committee agenda comprised a total of five applications, all of which related to relatively small-scale developments within the Borough. Each of the applications was presented using a PowerPoint style presentation and introduced by each of the case officers respectively, who shared a series of slides containing maps, photographs, plans/drawings and tables. The presentation appeared to be controlled by the Chairman with case officers and Councillors asking for the slides to be navigated as required.
It is understood that interested parties could register to speak at the committee, but the Chairman noted that none had done so. Officers made reference to any statutory and public comments that had been received during the consultation period. With no registered speakers, the Chair provided Councillors with the opportunity to ask questions and to suggest any amendments to the recommended conditions. Following this, the Chairman asked each of the Councillors in turn whether they agreed with the recommended decision. All five applications were recommended for approval and were subsequently supported and granted by the Councillors present.
Overall, RBKC’s debut trial of their virtual planning committee appeared to operate effectively with only very minor technical delays throughout, although these did not seem hinder the decision making process in any way. One of the only technical issues that was picked up was that drawing annotations and smaller text/labels included on the slideshow were particularly difficult to read, but officers were able to provide a sufficient description of what each drawing showed. The five applications included on the agenda were determined efficiently with each lasting between 15 and 20 minutes and the committee ending circa 19:45.
With local authorities given powers to decide their own voting arrangements, access to documents and the level of access provided to the general public there is considerable scope for procedures to vary from Council to Council. Whilst RBKC’s committee is certainly a useful test case, it did not involve any public speakers joining the virtual meeting which is likely to be the biggest challenge for future committees.
The Planning Officers Society has helpfully published a Good Practice Guidance Note – How to manage committee decisions during the Coronavirus Emergency (dated 30 March 2020) which suggests that new procedures should be designed to be as simple as possible and should not rely on complex technology arrangements. In this respect, we consider RBKC’s first virtual planning committee to have been a success. Virtual committees will be an important step towards ensuring that the planning system continues to operate during these difficult times and we looking forward to other Councils following RBKC’s lead.