If nothing else, our current circumstances have certainly proven that the UK's legislative draftsman are a genuinely exceptional and talented bunch of people.

Exactly seven days after the Coronavirus Act passed into law, we now have the statutory instrument necessary for virtual planning committees to get up an running. These take the form of the snappily titled: 

"Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020"

The regulations were laid before parliament today and, all going well, take effect on 4 April 2020 (this Saturday).

The Regulations are only eight pages long, but as most of those pages are taken up with specific statutory amendments, I have summarised the key principles below:

  •  The regulations are time limited and only apply to Council meetings to be held before 7 May 2021 - after which point the world is expected to have returned to normal.
  • They apply to pretty much every form of local authority that you can imagine. The definition lists seventeen different variations, including fire & rescue authorities, and port health authorities, so it is safe to assume that all local planning authorities are covered by the provisions.
  • The regulations expressly permit local authority members to  attend meetings remotely - either by phone or video link. The basic requirements are that they can be heard and can hear others. Video links are only required 'where practicable'.
  •  Members have to be able to hear each other; applicants; and council officers; but only need to be able to hear members of the public if they are registered to (and entitled to) speak at the meeting.
  • Members of the public need to be able to hear (and ideally see) what is going on, but not required to be heard unless they are registered to (and entitled to) speak.
  • Local authorities can make their own standing orders on voting arrangements, access to documents and the form of remote access to be made available to the general public.
  •  Councils have also been given a great deal of freedom over the timing of meetings, which can be moved, rescheduled or cancelled far more readily than was previously the case.

Local Authority meetings now only need to be 'open to the public'. A term which is defined as follows: 

 "a meeting being “ open to the public” include access to the meeting through remote means including (but not limited to) video conferencing, live webcast, and live interactive streaming and where a meeting is accessible to the public through such remote means the meeting is open to the public whether or not members of the public are able to attend the meeting in person"

The regulations give a great deal of scope for creativity and flexibility by local authorities when deciding how to hold 'virtual' meetings, and are not prescriptive on the technological solutions to be adopted.

 As such, it may be possible for a number of authorities to adapt solutions that they already have in place for live streaming Council meetings; or to move to other commercially available video or telephone conferencing facilities. 

If this freedom is widely taken up, and found to work well, we may find that the regulations last beyond their current May 2021 expiry date. Perhaps, when it comes to committee meetings , virtual reality may become the new reality for all of us....