“In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity”

When MHCLG’s Chief Planner Steve Quartermain wrote his last monthly letter in the role this week, he could have hardly expected to have had so much to speak about. But with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) having such an impact on all our lives, we are truly in unchartered territory.

But with unchartered territory comes fantastic opportunities, and Quartermain’s letter demonstrates clearly the chance we now have to make radical changes in how both local authorities and the planning system operates. Often slow to adapt to changing circumstances, COVID-19 and the response from MHCLG has given us a chance to trial changes to truly bring planning and local government into the 21st century:

“We ask you to take an innovative approach, using all options available to you to continue your service. We recognise that face-to-face events and meetings may have to be cancelled but we encourage you to explore every opportunity to use technology to ensure that discussions and consultations can go ahead….The Government has confirmed that it will introduce legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period, which we expect will allow planning committees to continue.”

By recognising that the technology does exist to hold planning committees virtually, the government has opened the door, at least temporarily for more council business to be conducted online. Whilst seemingly a small change, this has a potentially huge impact. For example, it could lead to meetings which are better chaired, with the most vocal members being less able to interrupt the flow of proceedings. Or perhaps it could make life easier for members with day jobs, or family commitments? And imagine the amount of paper your average council would save in not printing out lengthy report packs!

Whilst there are bound to be challenges with virtual meetings, these will undoubtedly become fewer with practice. And in times of crisis, it is reassuring that at least in some areas it will be “business as usual”.

But beyond COVID-19, why should this not become standard practice for local authorities?

Continued on a long-term basis, and without meaning to sound like Dominic Cummings, technological innovation has the potential to change the face of local government for good.

With more business conducted online, there is bound to be more engagement with local people, and a more diverse mix of people may get involved in the planning process. This means that making the planning systems simpler becomes not just an aim of subsequent ministers, but an actual necessity.

And by moving some councillor responsibilities online, more people who have day jobs, families and don’t take a state pension could be drawn to standing for election as councillors. More diversity amongst decision makers has long been associated with better decisions being made. And I’m sure we can all get on board with that.

So like COVID-19, this is only temporary, it opens the door to a whole host of opportunities. And it is our responsibility not just as citizens, but also as people who work with local authorities and national government on a daily basis to ensure that we make the most of the opportunities this current situation offers us.

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