Government will not extend emergency covid powers which have allowed councils to hold planning committees online

Developers are facing a lengthy hiatus in getting planning decisions made after the government said it will definitely not extend emergency powers brought in last year allowing councils to hold virtual planning meetings.

The powers, brought in via regulations under the 2020 Coronavirus Act, expressly allowed councils to hold virtual meetings, ensuring that decisions taken on online planning committees were safe from legal challenge.

Wandsworth virtual planning committee

A virtual planning committee held by Wandsworth council

The change, widely seen as a huge success, allowed the planning system to carry on functioning under lockdown measures brought in to halt the spread of covid-19.

However, junior local government minister Luke Hall last week wrote to councils, following increasing concern over the scheduled expiry of the regulations on May 6. His letter made clear that the ministry will not seek to extend the powers.

The letter said the decision had been taken because the change, which would require primary legislation, would put additional pressure on its legislative programme, and because of the success of its vaccination programme.

It said: “The government has considered the case for legislation very carefully, including the significant impact it would have on the government’s legislative programme which is already under severe pressure in these unprecedented times.

“We are also mindful of the excellent progress that has been made on our vaccination programme and the announcement of the government’s roadmap for lifting covid-19 restrictions. Given this context, the government has concluded that it is not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue at this time.”

The current powers are due to expire at a point at which there are still likely to be strict coronavirus rules in place, for instance preventing friends from meeting indoors. However, the government said local authority meetings would be able to take place face to face, despite this, as long as social distancing guidelines were adhered to. It said: “I recognise there may be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings. Ultimately it is for local authorities to apply the covid-19 guidance to ensure meetings take place safely”.

Following the announcement, the government has updated its guidance on holding face-to-face meetings in public buildings. It has also launched a call for evidence over the question of whether virtual planning meetings should ultimately be reinstated at a later date, given the potential for them to open up access to the planning system.

While all coronavirus restrictions are intended to be lifted by June 21 this year, implying the decision could cause just a six-week delay, the expiry of the rules were last month described as a potential “national disaster” by planning barrister Zack Simons, of Landmark Chambers, which would hold up development.

Camden Council leader Georgia Gould tweeting about Building Design’s coverage:

Responding to the news on LinkedIn, Simon Thornley, planning director at consultant Figura said: “This may be the maddest decision in a long time. What are they thinking?” while Debbie Farrer, associate director at Cerda Planning, said: “Well, I was not expecting this. Like many I consider the virtual meetings to have been one of the few positives to come out of the pandemic. Let’s hope for another U turn !”

The news comes after local authority officers groups earlier this month launched a legal challenge to attempt to establish whether existing legislation – dating back to the 1970s – could be used to justify virtual meetings, if the emergency powers were not extended.