South Holland District Council offices.

Council won’t hold online planning meetings amid legal concerns

More planning applications will be decided behind closed doors during lockdown after South Holland District Council decided not to hold online Planning Committee meetings yet.

In March, central government changed rules to allow councils to hold planning meetings online. Many have done so, including neighbouring South Kesteven.

SHDC’s Full Council held an online meeting last week where they voted to allow online meetings until May 2021.

But officials have said they have legal concerns about Planning Committee meetings and passed alternate measures with regards deciding applications.

A report for the meeting by lawyer Jacqui Berridge say legal challenges could come because members “would need to be in attendance during the whole time the application is being discussed”, “people may find it difficult to following the meeting in a virtual environment”, “planing is a very litigious area” and “impeccable record keeping is required for virtual planning meetings”.

Instead, initially until November 13, just four officers can have the final say on the applications.

A report on applications will go to The Chairman’s Panel which will meet as they choose via email, telephone or video conference call.

The officer must then give “significant weight” to the panel’s requests, the report to the Full Council states, but with any applications that would ordinarily go before the committee, the panel “may in the alternative provide comments on the application and to recommend that the officer determines the application taking account of those comments.

“The officer shall retain full authority to determine the matter (or not) but shall give significant weight to the view of the panel,” the report states.

Applications could be deferred for a public meeting but penalties for authorities not determining applications within a set time remain in place.

The chair of the Planning Committee, Roger Gambba-Jones, said concerns over officers’ internet connections was a particular reason for not adopting online planning meetings highlighting one councillor being unable to return to the Full Council meeting last week after losing connection.

“It’s just a fact of life that technology is not a sure thing, particularly in a rural area,” he said. “Other councils may be more confident about the robustness of their processes.

“We are keeping it under review and will try to understand how many applications have to come back to planning meetings. We don’t want a process that will penalise applicants or the public. We’ll take feedback from people and members going forward.”

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