Blog: 4 June 2020Virtual Decision Making – can this be the future?

Joanna Burton

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Joanna Burton

Heritage Director

Cambridge office

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Much has been made in recent weeks of the birth of the online planning committee and the success of Local Authorities in working with their elected members to maintain momentum in the planning process. This is to be welcomed and celebrated - the benefits could be considerable.

Putting aside the occasional technical glitch, we have witnessed the benefit of the virtual planning committee with a number of planning applications having recently been approved. But is this convenient and sustainable solution the panacea we have all unwittingly been waiting for?

The virtual world has its own etiquette and behaviours. From our own experience of presenting to ‘invisible’ audiences, we have experienced first-hand the disconnect that can happen online that is only too apparent in some of the discourse around the social media phenomenon. With social distancing, our physical worlds have inevitably shrunk and one can often feel removed from the bigger picture. As a result, it is not always easy to feel connected and accountable to our online selves operating well beyond the confines of our home offices. Perhaps our decision-takers feel this too. Our elected Members may perceive this virtual world as liberating, an opportunity to be bolder in their decision-making without being confronted by the physical presence of their emotionally charged constituents. But what does this mean for accountability and democracy? On the one hand, it could redress the power imbalance from the vocal minority to the silent majority. But does this mean our politicians are now one step removed from the public they serve, making it harder for constituents to influence and hold their elected members to account? Any empowerment of members needs to be carefully balanced against ensuring an appropriate degree of ‘connectedness’, keeping them accountable to their role, their officers and constituents.

 

Mark Sitch, Senior Partner 

Jo makes some interesting comments here around virtual decision making that all Local Authorities and the appeal system has been grappling with. I’ve seen some great examples of pre-application advice being provided remotely and Local Authority Committees where we, alongside our clients, can appear virtually and speak directly to them regarding proposals and see the members then voting, so there is some good transparency there. Right now we are poised to participate in two of the first virtual appeals as a practice, so watching how these progress will be really interesting and exciting, as will to making our representations at the South Oxfordshire Local Plan examination next month. #letsfindaway has never been more important if we are to keep the wheels of local plans and decision-making turning, and the virtual world can and must work hard for us in this new age….So find a way we must!

 

 

Christine Dalziel​, Senior Planner

In Scotland we have been encouraged by the speed at which many Local Authorities have adapted to the current situation and put in place measures to enable virtual decision making. As well as regular virtual meetings with case officers, in recent weeks we have held a virtual briefing with Elected Members to discuss a forthcoming application. This was a useful and beneficial exercise for all parties and we would welcome this approach being adopted more widely going forward. There does remain inconsistency across the country and we would urge every Local Authority to put in place engagement and decision making mechanisms which will enable development projects to progress through the system with minimal delay. These projects are vital in maintaining construction activity and aiding economic recovery.

Perhaps understandably, officers remain cautious about having key debates about the direction of a plan or a key planning application online where the ability to manage the discussion is more limited.  This has been further reinforced by the large number of local plans that have been falling foul of the inspectorate due to the process undertaken.   Effective relationships between planning officers and elected members is a core part of successful planning outcomes. On the larger schemes, officers are likely to have invested in many months if not years of work to achieve a recommendation they are comfortable with. If this was a controversial proposal, how might they perceive the margins playing out in an online committee verses the fully accountable theatre of the Committee chamber? Ensuring that officers are still able to provide their technical expertise to decision-making must remain central to the process in the virtual world.

The presence of virtual committee meetings reminds us of the situation we are grappling with. The opportunities for accelerating our climate strategy, reducing traffic on our roads and improving our quality of life are regular topics of conversation at home and across the fibre optics. This will inevitably become an increasingly larger part of our planning consciousness, influencing our planning proposals and the decisions we collectively make as a society. Effective articulation and communication is of course vital to help our communities, decision makers and politicians to understand and buy in to our visions for the future. Perhaps our pre-occupation with the format of the final decision-making event is misguided. The real opportunity instead lies in how this technological advancement can be used to far greater effect in communicating and engaging our vision and gaining support early on. This could just give the virtual committee an efficiency and permanence that will benefit us all.

 

Greg Dickson, Planning Director

Our experience of virtual Planning Committees in Bury and Sheffield recently prove that the decision-making is continuing - positive news for all involved in the development industry. There is however, something quite special about the ‘theatre’ of a public planning committee and the heated debate that often takes place in relation to complex or controversial planning applications. As Jo rightly points out, online Planning Committees can't fully replicate the ‘thrills and spills’ of the public gallery but it remains vitally important that planning decisions continue to be debated online in the short term, and maybe also as an option in the long term?

The broader debate in relation to the capacity of webinars and webcasts and their ability to replace consultation events in village halls is ongoing. There’s no doubt village halls have their place but our outreach work for the Wirral Growth Company has confirmed the e-consultation techniques can ensure broader and more flexible engagement process (with more than 60% of feedback being generated via online portals / channels).

I would ask if retrofitting the system with temporary changes and legislation is a missed opportunity? I’d like to see further commitments to a more wholesale digitisation of the Planning System in the Government’s forthcoming White paper. Covid-19 or not options for on and offline are surely needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What experiences have you had with virtual planning? What do you think the future holds? Please do post your thinking on our LinkedIn post - together #letsfindaway.

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