Over the last year, the spread of COVID-19 has caused an economic and social upheaval, impacting on almost every aspect of our everyday life. For those who work within the planning landscape, whether it be within a council or a consultancy, lockdown and social distancing has posed many challenges.

However, we are delighted to see our industry adapt and evolve in many ways, including the introduction of virtual planning committees.

As we work with many councils across the UK, we have had the privilege to be involved with some of the first planning committee meetings to take place via virtual video call platforms. To aid the success of similar upcoming council endeavours, we have outlined our experience and future recommendations.

To discuss any of the points raised in further detail, or to directly contact one of our planning consultants, please click here.

All virtual video call platforms have similar functionality. However, we have found that some have additional features that can contribute to the smooth running of committee meetings. In our experience, Zoom appears to work best at present. The platform allows a host, or a selection of admins, to mute all microphones, except for the invited speaker(s). We have also heard from other members of the industry that Microsoft Team Live Events has similar functionality. Another consideration is that some platforms have a maximum live broadcast time, which it is important to take into account prior to the organisation of the session. Of course, user error can be the biggest barrier to progress. Ultimately, we advise that whoever is hosting the meeting is confident in using the technology and understands its full capabilities.
It is our recommendation that invitations into the video call should be reserved for those expected to present at the committee meeting. For other third parties interested in viewing the decision-making process, such as members of the public, we suggest a live stream to Facebook or YouTube is set up. This permits transparency of the meeting, whilst preventing unwanted disruptions. This route also has an additional benefit compared to committee meetings held in person. It ensures that committee members, when coming to a decision, balance the benefits or harm caused by an application, rather than feeling pressured by the presence of vocal objectors in the room.
From our experience, we have found that clear leadership and effective chairing is key. While this skill is important in all meetings, virtual committees have many attendees, so without it, processes can be unclear and run times can exceed the allotted timeframe. We have been involved in virtual committee meetings that have considerably exceeded the working day, which challenges the concentration of even the most alert viewer. A successful chair should manage the order of the meeting and invite all registered speakers to contribute at the correct time and for the allotted period only. It is also important that the chair controls the microphones of other committee members. If multiple people are physically able to speak at once, important points can be missed.
While effective preparation and structured agendas have always been needed for the smooth running of committee meetings, it is even more essential when a key decision is being made via a virtual platform. We consider shorter agendas, around three or four items, may be more productive. A clear agenda also allows any attendees who have technical or connection issues to understand what point the meeting is at when they re-join the call. In terms of clarity around arriving at the final decision, we suggest that the head of the committee asks each of the councillors individually as to whether or not they agree with the recommendation proposed by the chair and to confirm that they have been able to hear the entire committee item.

Virtual committee meetings should always be set-up by the council itself, not a third party, therefore ensuring that links are not shared, and only registered speakers are admitted to the call. Although we have yet to experience it, we have heard of purposeful disruptions by those who should have not been granted access to the platform.

Also, while it may seem a trivial point in comparison to the above, when multiple screens are displayed together, our experience is that blurring the background of each video call allows the eye to focus on the individuals contributing. In addition, while distractions such as barking dogs or unexpected children can add some light humour to proceedings, multiple occurrences can disrupt the flow of the committee meeting. Our suggestion is that all direct contributors attempt to find a quiet workplace to conduct the call from, although we understand this may not be possible for all in current circumstances.

When it comes to holding virtual committee meetings, some factors are out of the control of even the most prepared councils. Technical hiccups are unfortunately a fact of life, which is why it helps that there is no longer a legal requirement for all members of the committee to be present when a decision is made. Most councils only require a certain number of members to be quorate, which in our experience has been as low as half the elected members. Interestingly, a council we worked with deliberately reduced the number of members at the virtual meeting to simplify and shorten the process. As one would expect, they retained political party balance. Overall, this worked very well, and it is our recommendation that more councils consider a similar approach.
We are aware that in some areas, committee meetings are currently going ahead without allowing agents to contribute directly. Instead, they are invited to send a short statement, which is then read out by a member of the Democratic Services team. In our opinion, this is a mistake. This approach removes the personal touch and does not allow the agent to convey their enthusiasm for the scheme or to emphasise particular points. Some council’s allow members to seek clarification on points from registered speakers, which we consider to be another important part of the committee process that should be facilitated. We also believe the same applies for other third parties and parish councils.
We have heard reports of committee members requesting more frequent weekly or bi-weekly meetings to address the application caseload backlog. While there is undoubtably a positive in this approach, we would also highlight some concerns. A fast-paced committee cycle turnaround could lead to officer burnout and impact their ability to focus on the rest of their caseload. While we do not discourage this being suggested as an option, we do believe it would need to be carefully managed and over-long agendas should be avoided. We also believe there is scope for the greater use of delegated powers on minor or less contentious proposals.
For further information, or to speak directly to one of our planning professionals, please contact us.
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Nick is a chartered town planner and development surveyor with over 25 years' experience, gained across the residential, commercial, retail and industrial sectors for corporate, institutional and private landowners and developers. He has worked at CBRE and Drivers Jonas Deloitte. His professional experience is in three main sectors – Strategic Land / Projects, Retail / Mixed-Use and Central London. Strategic Projects / Land involves the promotion of land for commercial and residential development for landowners and developers. Retail / Mixed-Use schemes are a blend of edge of centre and town centre mixed-use schemes with food stores and other uses, often residential. This sector includes regeneration and waterside schemes. Central London focuses on projects from Canary Wharf to Hammersmith and Camden down to Wandsworth, Southwark and Lambeth.

When he isn’t working, Nick can be found playing golf (increasingly badly) and spending time re-stocking and emptying his wine cellar to indulge his passion for wine.

Jon leads the Carter Jonas London development team, providing strategic development advice, feasibility and viability studies, acquisition, disposal and marketing advice and advice on structuring and procuring development partnerships. He has 30 years’ experience, working initially in local government and then in consultancy at Donaldsons, Knight Frank and GL Hearn.

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John is Head of the Leeds office and the Planning & Development Team North. John advises clients on proposed development projects throughout the North of England.  He has over 30 years’ experience in residential and commercial development acting for private, corporate, institutional, charity and public sector clients.

This includes site identification, project management of planning and development strategies, valuation and viability appraisals, marketing and sale of development opportunities.

John has specific expertise in Options, Promotional Agreements, Joint Ventures and Conditional Contracts, acting mainly for landowners.  John has been involved in projects such as new settlements, to city centre regeneration, provincial sites, large commercial developments and site sales.

The Development Agency team are currently instructed on 6,500 acres in 150 locations across the North West, Yorkshire and the North East.

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James is Chairman of Carter Jonas.  Formerly Head of the Planning & Development Division, James advises clients on proposed development projects throughout the south of England with nearly 30 years of experience in residential and mixed use development.  This includes site identification, project management of planning and development strategies, valuation and viability appraisals, marketing and sale of development opportunities. He has specific expertise in option, promotion and other development agreements, joint ventures and landowner equalisation agreements. James has been involved in sites ranging from new settlements to city centre regeneration and smaller provincial and rural schemes, and also provides expert witness and independent expert valuation services for dispute resolution.

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Colin is a Partner and was appointed Head of Planning & Development Division in November 2020, he is based out of our Cambridge office.  He has over 25 years’ experience of planning consultancy and has a broad sphere of work.  He acts for a wide range of private, institutional and developer clients and has worked on significant planning applications and appeals.

He regularly instructs Counsel, and has appeared at a number of Local Plan examinations and in Section 78 and other appeals where he has often given evidence.  He carries out much land promotion work and has a strong track record of delivering planning consents taking projects through their entire process from site identification to construction on site.  

Away from work, Colin is Chairman of the Cambridge Forum for the Construction Industry and of the Cambridge branch of networking group, Interact.  He is also Chairman of the Dining Rights Committee at the Hawks’ Club, a sporting club in the City for Cambridge University sportsmen. He is a regular, if poor golfer, a keen cyclist and a committed, but somewhat less dangerous skier than he once was.

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Matthew has acted for a wide number of Landowner Clients including:

  • Royal Estate Sandringham
  • Crown Point Estate
  • Cecil Family Trust
  • Greene King Plc
  • North Hertfordshire College
  • Cemex
  • May Gurney
  • Pigeon
  • Advice, marketing, disposal and additional tranche disposal of 1,500 unit Residential Development in Grantham.

Project team principle for disposal of the NHC Centre of the Arts, Hitchin, securing a Development Partner and assembling a professional team to progress an application, sale and disposal of a principal asset within the College’s portfolio 

Mathew has over 29 years' experience in the property industry and has been directly involved Residential Development in East Anglia since 1998. He specialises in Land Disposals and Acquisition; Strategic Land, Promotion and Option Agreements. He has acted for a wide range of private and public sector land owners companies including Greene King, Royal Estate Sandringham; Grant Thornton, Pigeon, Crown Point Estate, Cemex (formerly RMC), The Diocese of Norfolk & Norwich and North Hertfordshire College as well as private land owners across the region.

He is Head of Residential Development at the Cambridge Office.

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Steven is Partner and Head of Planning Southern Region and is based in our Oxford office.

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