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As we mark the end of remote planning meetings and head back to physical rooms to meet in person, specialist planning barrister, Kate Olley, reflects on the pros and cons of meeting virtually versus a return to pre-Covid routines.

Today is the 7th May and so here we are, back to face-to-face planning meetings. At least so we are in theory, given that we are still fully 10 days away from actually being permitted to meet others from different households indoors, but much has already been said about that particular illogicality.

With everyone having adapted so well to the virtual world, being pulled sharply back from that felt jarring. The Government’s reason for not passing legislation to allow virtual planning committees to continue was interesting: citing pressures on the legislative programme in these- you’ve guessed it – unprecedented times, it seems clear that the Government considers that to extend the ability for committees to meet virtually would be a retrograde step, a move against what it hopes is a steady flow back towards the previous normal, borne on the tide of the success of the vaccination programme.

In-person versus virtual

The majority reaction has been one of dismay. No one has really blamed the court itself, stymied as it was in the Hertfordshire challenge by the inability to stretch the wording of the Local Government Act 1972. But groans could be heard around the country as those involved in the process realised that it was back to the world of spending the evening travelling and sitting through endless other applications to get to theirs, while councils feared the “utter chaos” and having to try to find rooms that are remotely big enough to accommodate all-comers, at least until social distancing ends.

Not everyone unreservedly enjoyed the virtual process over the last year, and some profess to be desperate to get back to conducting matters in person, but when sought the general feedback from the public, able to participate in meetings, and indeed the likes of planning inquiries, from the comfort of their own homes, was largely extremely positive. There is no doubt that there is a lot to be said for the vastly greater accessibility afforded by being able to join a meeting online, and the value of that increased level of engagement. So it is to be hoped that this aspect, at least, will be preserved as we move forward, even if Committee members themselves are forced to congregate together in person once more.

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