Some North West authorities have been quick to devise alternative arrangements to progress planning applications despite Covid-19, while others are yet to confirm a strategy for safeguarding their local development pipelines.
The Government changed legislation at the start of this month to permit councils to hold committee meetings virtually using video or telephone conferencing. Previously, there the law required them to host meetings in person, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
It has remained up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure the public has access to open meetings.
This has led to a broad variety of responses across North West councils – even between those that operate in the same combined authority areas, such as Greater Manchester.
Manchester City Council has continued momentum around planning approvals by using its delegated powers to progress decisions, with chief executive Joanne Roney and Cllrs Basil Curley and Nasrin Ali appointed to make decisions as of the end of last month.
No planning committee meetings are currently scheduled in April or May as the national lockdown continues, although this could also reflect Easter holidays and what would have been the election purdah period. Local elections due to take place at the start of May have been postponed until 2021.
Manchester City Council has approved a number of large schemes under delegated powers in recent weeks, including Ask Real Estate’s plans for the next phase of its First Street development, and a 412-bedroom hotel near the airport.
In Liverpool, the city council is taking a similar approach to Manchester, as planning decisions are being taken by the chief executive Tony Reeves under delegated powers, advised by the head of planning. Virtual committee meetings are due to be scheduled at a later date.
For smaller borough councils, a variety of processes are in place. In Trafford, planning committees are not meeting, and decisions are being taken by a group of planning officers and councillors made up of head of planning Rebecca Coley, alongside committee chairman Cllr Laurence Walsh and councillors Aiden Williams and Daniel Bunting. The first decisions through this process are due be made this Friday with create Developments’ 197-bedroom hotel near the Trafford Centre in line for approval.
The arrangement is expected to remain in place until 31 May, according to the council.
Cllr James Wright, Trafford Council’s executive member for housing and regeneration, said: “We have tried very hard to make sure we are still processing applications and making decisions with officers working from home.
“The rules regarding social distancing mean we cannot hold planning meetings at the moment so this is the best way forward in actually making decisions on important planning applications.”
Rochdale is yet to take advantage of the Government ruling, as it has postponed planning committee meetings until July. Delegated decisions are still being made where appropriate.
In Stockport, the chief executive or corporate director, in consultation with the committee chair, is making decisions in consultation with councillors, although a statement from the council stressed: “The decision must be one for the corporate director alone to make.”
Meanwhile, in Merseyside, Knowsley has confirmed that the council will be holding planning meetings virtually, scheduled on a monthly basis. “This process will be continued for the period of the Covid-19 pandemic and until it is safe to resume planning meetings in their previous form,” the council said.
Wirral Council is another exploring the possibility of holding virtual planning meetings.
David Ball, assistant director for major growth projects and housing delivery, said: “The Council has a range of emergency and delegated powers to make decisions on planning applications in the present circumstances. It is also seeking to organise a virtual planning committee in the coming weeks for those applications which need a member decision.
“These arrangements will operate for the foreseeable future and enable Wirral to be open for business in terms of determining planning applications.”
Cheshire East Council said it “will not delay decision-making unnecessarily”. While all site visits are currently suspended, the council is focusing on determining applications where site visits have already taken place, or on schemes where visits are not needed. Where visits are necessary, extensions to applications are being agreed.
Place North West has asked the council for a comment regarding the procedure for making these decisions. Cheshire West and Chester Council has also been approached for information bout the approach it is taking.
Lancashire County Council said it will be making decisions with the relevant planning officer in conjunction with the committee chair, while Preston is, for the time being, making decisions through delegated powers.
Cllr Matthew Brown, leader of Preston City Council, said: “As an interim measure, the council is considering use of the chief executive’s emergency powers to determine major applications, following consultation with members of the planning committee.
“We are also investigating the practicality of holding a virtual planning committee meeting. The majority of planning applications will continue to be determined under officer delegated powers.”
If you are a council not named in this story, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us how you are determining applications during lockdown