In her historic address to the country, the Queen ended her speech by telling viewers that “We will meet again.” We can assume that across the country, as local authorities began to adapt themselves to the new reality, many councillors leaving their last foreseeable meetings will have bid farewell to their colleagues in a similar fashion. No doubt, they felt that they would see their fellow elected representatives very soon, their pictures crowded onto a computer screen for a conference call.
Sadly, across the Home Counties, the reality has turned out to be anything but. From 4 April 2020, Government regulations enabled local authorities to undertake remote meetings that the press and public could join. Some councils have quickly risen to the challenge, embracing video conferencing to continue transacting important business, while ensuring that the services that we all depend on do not grind to a halt. Too many, though, have simply just stopped, especially on planning issues.
Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council is one of those leading the charge in a digital solution to the problem of social distancing, having already got underway with holding its Cabinet meeting through Zoom with a webcast to ensure press and public accessibility. Similarly, Thurrock Council has been holding its committee meetings through teleconferencing.
However, it remains the unfortunate local government standard that councils are slow to adapt to the situation. Many local authorities have postponed all their meetings at least until May slowing down the planning process resulting in inevitable blockages.
There are councils across the country who have shown that there is another way. There are severe challenges facing authorities at this difficult time and the response to Covid-19 and protecting the most vulnerable in our communities needs to take priority. However, Steve Quartermain, until recently the Government’s Chief Planner (and now a Senior Associate at Cratus), offered a more nuanced view in his final update to local authority Chief Planners in March 2020. His letter makes clear how important it is for councils to continue providing the best service and use innovation to prioritise decision-making to keep the planning system going – especially where it benefits the local economy. Councils cannot simply put business on hold until further notice and abandon any real democratic scrutiny of their decision-making.
Cratus has been working with organisations across the country to develop and implement new ways of engaging with local communities and stakeholders. The tools to make this happen are readily available and can be adapted to ensure that councils can continue the important work that they do for us all. We are ready and willing to assist any organisation in seizing the opportunity of using this technology to transform how they meet, engage and take decisions.