Savills plc

04/29/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 04/29/2021 03:57

High Court ruling on virtual council meetings

Planning will inevitably be impacted, at least in the short term, since it relies on local authority meetings for decision making, for example on planning determinations for significant development and decisions on local plan making. It is not clear yet whether local government will be in a position to physically undertake meetings, at least until all the government restrictions are eased in mid-June. Nonetheless, the opportunity to continue to positively grasp modern and more accessible forms of decision making has been lost, at least for the time being.

Knock on impacts could be felt by the rest of the construction industry, which has reacted positively to the continuation of planning processes via virtual means.

Savills Planning Director, Charlie Collins, said: 'The ruling is a big disappointment to the industry and will be for local authorities, I'm sure. The government has rightly highlighted the use of e-communications and better use of digital tools in the Planning White Paper. It should now move to embed such in modern legislation'

'We know of many authorities which wish to continue virtual meetings while social distancing measures remain in place, and rightly so.'

Since 4 April 2020, councils have met virtually as per emergency Coronavirus regulations handed down by Government under section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020.

This had allowed business to continue once local authorities had organised the procedure for virtual meetings to widespread success. The rules applied to all local authorities in England and Wales, including parish, town, and community councils.

Social distancing measures required by Covid restrictions could still preclude councils from holding in person meetings for weeks or months to come.

Savills Senior Planner, Katriona Ormiston-Rees, added: 'Early in the pandemic there was a gargantuan effort by local authorities to set up the procedures and technology in virtual format to carry on business as democratically and as close to normal as possible.

'This has allowed us all to continue our work with councils and developers to help keep the industry from stalling and support the economy.

'The absence of updated legislation has proved to be a step backwards which risks unravelling the positive progress made. There are so many examples of where online meetings have been embraced by people able to access them more easily than in person. It would be a real shame for that to be lost now.'

Section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 only applies to council meeting taking place before 7 May 2021. It is understood primary legislation would be needed to extend this.

On 25 March 2021, the Government wrote to all local authorities and told them that it was 'not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue at this time'.

A claim by ADSO (Association of Democratic Services Officers), LLG (Lawyers in Local Government) and Hertfordshire County Council sought a judgement from the High Court on the matter. They claimed the word 'meeting' in local government legislation can be read as referring to virtual meetings as well as in-person meetings.

The High Court ruling dismissed the claim, pointing to a number of places within the the Local Government Act 1972 which refers to the 'place' of such meetings, to people being 'present' at them and to the persons who may 'attend'.

Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Chamberlain heard the case. Their judgement concluded that: 'For these reasons, we conclude that the Secretary of State was correct in November 2016 and July 2019 to say that primary legislation would be required to allow local authority 'meetings' under the 1972 Act to take place remotely. In our view, once the Flexibility Regulations cease to apply, such meetings must take place at a single, specified geographical location; attending a meeting at such a location means physically going to it; and being 'present' at such a meeting involves physical presence at that location.

'We recognise that there are powerful arguments in favour of permitting remote meetings.'

To read the High Court verdict see:

To read the Government's letter of 25 March 2021 to local authorities, see: