Local government bodies seek judgment designed to prevent planning system ’grinding to a halt’ in May

Two bodies representing local government officials have launched legal action amid fears that the planning system could grind to a halt in May when emergency powers introduced last year to allow virtual planning committees expire.

The Association of Democratic Services Officers and Lawyers in Local Government have launched a high action seeking a “declaratory” judgment on whether or not virtual meetings can continue to be used beyond 6 May, when powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020 run out.

Wandsworth virtual planning committee

A statement issued by John Austin, chair of the ADSO, and Quentin Baker, president of the LLG, said the organisations had been joined by Hertfordshire County Council in the legal action, and were awaiting a response form the court as to the timing of the case.

The bodies said they had applied to have the proceedings expedited in order that a decision on the case can be made before the 6 May cut-off.

High profile planning barrister Zack Simons, of Landmark Chambers, said last week that there was a “real prospect that from 7 May 2021 local planning authority decisions for major schemes in England will effectively grind to a halt”, a propsect he described as a “national disaster”.

The use of virtual planning committees was seen by many in the industry as vital in allowing the planning system to carry on functioning during the pandemic.

Under the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, many restrictions will still be in place, particularly around the mixing of people indoors, by 6 May, while the delay to the roll out of the vaccine announced this week means very few people under the age of 50 are likely to have received vaccines.

The court case comes after the ADSO and LLG said that they have been told by the housing ministry that extending the provisions for virtual meetings brought in under the Coronavirus Act would require further primary legislation, and that there was no vehicle for this prior to the start of May, and thus there were “no plans to extend it”.

The court case aims to secure a judgment making clear that existing local government rules, dating from the 1970s, are sufficient to allow virtual meetings to go ahead – thereby ensuring that planning decisions taken are not vulnerable to immediate legal challenge.

The ADSO and LLG said that the Local Government Association, the National Association of Local Councils and the Welsh Government Minister for Housing and Local Government had also been listed as interested parties in the legal action and will have the opportunity to submit evidence should they wish.

Their statement said: “We are pleased with the quality of our evidence and we thank all those authorities who have both written to the Secretary of State and submitted evidence to us in support of our claim.

“We will issue a further statement when we receive the outcome of our application to expediate and the hearing date.”

A spokesperson for the housing ministry said current lockdown rules did allow for councils to reinstate physical meetings where social distancing rules were adhered to, and that the ministry was nonetheless “carefully considering its next steps in this area”.