Local authorities in England have been given new powers from tomorrow to hold meetings, including planning committees, by video or telephone conferencing.
The government announced it had temporarily removed the legal requirement for councils to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus outbreak.
A statement today from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the measure would allow council staff, members and the public to stay at home but still access decision meetings.
The change covers all category of public meetings. It will be up to each local authority to decide how meetings should be conducted and how the public has access.
Oil and gas applications
Several applications for onshore oil and gas sites are currently going through the planning system and some were due to be decided in the coming weeks.
Surrey County Council has cancelled its next planning committee meeting, due on 16 April 2020.
The council’s website said today:
“All public committee meetings will now take place as informal private meetings with no public in attendance. Meeting papers and records of decisions and minutes will still be available via the committee pages along with details of how to make public representations.
DrillOrDrop asked the council whether this applied to planning meetings and whether planning committees would be held by video or phone. This post will be updated with any response.
The latest information on UKOG’s oil and gas site application at Dunsfold in Surrey suggests it was due to be decided by 21 May 2020.
West Sussex County Council said it had cancelled all formal meetings until the end of April because of coronavirus. Alternative arrangements were being made for urgent decisions, but this would not include planning applications, including those by Angus Energy at Balcombe and UKOG at Broadford Bridge, a spokesperson said.
There are no public dates for decisions by Lancashire County Council on the applications by Aurora Energy Resources to drill and frack at Altcar Moss, near Formby or by Cuadrilla for a time extension at its gas site at Elswick, near Blackpool.
Isle of Wight Council has said it would publish UKOG’s recent application to drill and test two wells at Arreton. But a public consultation would not begin until the end of the outbreak.
“Virtual meetings make home working easier”
The local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, said:
“Local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that while maintaining the transparency we expect in local decision making.
“Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. This includes working from home wherever possible, and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.
“It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.
“We’ve given local authorities across England an additional £1.6 billion to help their crucial work in the national effort against coronavirus, and we are continuing to ensure they get all of the support that they need at this time.”
The chair of the Local Government Association, Cllr James Jamieson, said:
“Giving councils powers to hold meetings remotely is important to maintaining local democracy and allowing critical decisions to be made during this public health crisis. Councils need to respond quickly and make very many key decisions. They can now do so while remaining open, transparent and accessible to the public.
“Remote council meetings will crucially help ensure all those taking part stay at home, helping to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and save lives.”