In response to the coronavirus crisis and lockdown, Manchester City Council suspended the planning committee and delegated planning powers to the Chief Executive.
Thanks to new legislation, planning committees can now legally make decisions virtually. With other councils moving to online decision-making – and controversial schemes being decided this week – councillors, the Opposition, and campaigners are calling for MCC to reinstate the planning committee.
On 23 March, the UK Government locked down the nation in response to the coronavirus crisis. The same day, Manchester City Council (MCC) delegated planning powers, a move taken by many – but not all – councils across the country. The 1972 Local Government Act required councillors to be physically present to decide applications at planning committees.
The crisis, however, is bringing local authorities into the 21st century. Just two days after lockdown, the 359 page Coronavirus Act received royal assent, and with it the start of legislation that would make it possible to meet and make decisions virtually. The secondary legislation required was passed on 2nd April.
While the legislation makes it possible for councils to make committee decisions virtually, it doesn’t oblige them to. As a result, councils are taking a myriad of approaches to planning decisions, ranging from going fully virtual, to ‘mixed-method’, to rejecting virtual committee meetings completely. MCC has stated its ambition is to move to virtual committee meetings but needs to be completely satisfied the process would be safe and secure.
In the meantime, decisions on controversial schemes are being taken by delegated powers this week with Hulme councillors saying they aren’t clear on how the public can object. Councillors are calling for the planning committee to resume, as is the Opposition and housing campaigners who are particularly concerned that democracy hangs in the balance if MCC carries on with delegated powers.
Under the emergency powers, planning decisions are being made by Chief Executive Joanne Roney, alongside chair of the planning committee Cllr Basil Curley and deputy chair Cllr Nasrin Ali. As detailed in a report to the Council – written by the Chief Executive, Deputy Chief Executive, City Treasurer, and City Solicitor – powers are delegated until 26 November 2020 and can be rescinded or extended by the Council at any time.
Explaining their rationale for delegating powers, the Council told the Meteor:
“National guidance, which was agreed by Manchester’s Full Council in March, is to delegate decision making powers in the short-term … to determine a small number of applications during this period. These are exceptional circumstances but it’s important that we can continue to operate as openly and transparently as possible.
“In the longer term, and in consideration of the current social distancing protocols, our ambition would be a move to a virtual planning committee, including the opportunity for real-time public representations. Options to support this are currently being considered, but we would need to be completely satisfied that the process could be undertaken securely and safely before being introduced.”
Labour councillors are eager to reinstate the planning committee with Cllr Jon-Connor Lyons for Picadilly saying: “We are all keen in the city center to get the committee functioning again and have been calling for such.”
Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Cllr Richard Kilpatrick for Didsbury West, says “Other councils are moving ahead with virtual meetings and Manchester is running behind”. He points out that even parliament agreed to go virtual last week. While acknowledging the need to delegate emergency powers at this time of crisis, he also says:
“I am getting emails everyday from residents and businesses asking me to hold decisions to account and why decisions are being made. To operate to our best we need a way to conduct businesses as close as possible to how we would normally.
“Technology and safety is an easy excuse to hide behind. If the technology is good enough for the private sector and for Parliament it’s good enough for Manchester Town Hall.”
Campaigners are also concerned about the delegated powers and are calling for the planning committee to be reinstated. Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) says:
“While we appreciate immediate concerns over both the safety of committee members and ensuring that virtual meetings are secure, we do not believe that suspending the committee until the end of November is a just or democratic way for planning decisions to be handled.
“Over the last year many decisions of this committee have been politically sensitive, and the changes to the planning structure risk empowering developers over the people of this city adversely affected by development.
“We believe that it is critical that full democratic structures are in place to scrutinise planning decisions that will have a huge impact on the future of the city – and see no justification for the suspension of normal operations until the end of November.”
GMHA have highlighted two schemes in particular they feel are contentious: the £500 million Arena in East Manchester near the Etihad Stadium, and the Back of Ancoats scheme that includes demolishing historic buildings, cutting down trees, and building on green space. The public have until 7 May to respond to the Arena and 15 May to respond to the Ancoats scheme.
Even more immediately pressing are decisions being taken on 29 April under emergency delegated powers. It includes planning applications – that were previously rejected by the planning committee but now labelled as “non key decisions” – for student accomodation at the Church Inn site and the Gallery Gardens development on Chester Road in Hulme. Cllr Annette Wright for Hulme tweeted “Hume councillors have asked for these applications to go to a full Planning Committee but as it stands, we have been told that this will not happen.”
Moreover, she said: “I am not clear, how or if, residents can make objections but if you have anything to say and want to send it to me, I will pass it on.” Wright said she continues to oppose the application: “I have told the Chief Executive that I continue to oppose both schemes as nothing has materially changed with the developments since the Planning Committee last considered them.”
Since lockdown, councils have taken a variety of approaches to handling planning decisions. While MCC delegated powers and cancelled the next meeting scheduled for 9 April, other councils were not so easily deterred.
On 2 April Waltham Forest Council’s planning committee met and voted through a 750 home scheme (with 50% affordable housing). Councillors met in a committee room where they maintained social distance, while all other participation took place successfully through Microsoft Teams. Milton Keynes has recently taken a similar approach and streamed the meeting via YouTube for the public.
While these councils have continued meeting in person, others have taken to virtual decision-making with gusto. On 8 April – a day before Manchester’s cancelled committee meeting – Kensington and Chelsea hosted England’s first fully virtual planning committee meeting, with the chairman saying “Getting member decisions up and running again is really important to us and our residents so we have wasted no time in preparing for our first meeting.” The following week Westminster City Council held its first virtual planning committee meeting and approved a scheme with unanimous support from committee members.
A number of councils have been more tentative, adopting a
‘mixed-method’ approach where committees meet virtually to discuss applications
and make recommendations but the decision is still delegated to the Chief
Executive. Liverpool’s planning committee, for example, met virtually for the first
time on 31 March. In his blog, Liberal Democrat Cllr Richard Kemp
“For legal reasons we could not make decisions today but only recommendations to the Chief Executive who will use his delegated powers for these applications. We are hoping that in the very near future the Government will move regulations to make virtual meetings decision making for the period of the Coronavirus problem time.”
While he says it wasn’t as good as a proper committee – on that occasion they weren’t able to hear from objectors or developers – “It has however enabled our business to go on and for councillors to be involved in the process.”
South Somerset Council (SSC) took a similar approach, which resulted in possibly the most high profile planning committee meeting during this time. While decisions are still delegated, the committee met virtually and included public participation. However, the Zoom meeting was interrupted by trolls who joined under “suggestive names”, used abusive language, and played audio from a pornographic film. MCC have since cited the Somerset “fiasco” as an “example of what we desperately want to avoid” and why it’s so critical the technology in place is safe and secure.
Despite the trolling incident, however, SSC haven’t backed away from virtual meetings. Rather, they quickly learned from the experience and have since held two more virtual meetings open to the public, which were streamed live on YouTube.
SSC have also learned how to use the Zoom waiting room feature to control who can access the meeting. They explained to the Meteor: “Zoom allows us to control the waiting room to put controls in place to set controls for each participant (microphones, video, names and screen sharing) and not to allow accounts which are clearly false to enter the meeting. Unfortunately, the waiting room facility was not used correctly for the first meeting.” Having now mastered the Zoom learning curve, they say: “Currently, we are inviting residents who have registered to speak, and parties relevant to the meeting (applicants, agents, parish representatives) and councillors to join the Zoom meeting while the general public observes the meeting through a concurrent Youtube link.”
Despite a number of councils holding successful virtual committee meetings, Norfolk Council caused a small stir last week when they held a virtual Zoom meeting and decided to rule out decisions being made by virtual meeting. The Eastern Daily Press reported that opposition Green and Liberal Democrat councillors had called for virtual meetings, unhappy with the delegation approach. LibDem Cllr Judith Lubbock said, “We are not happy at this being left to a few individuals. It is not good for democracy.” Similarly, Independent Cllr Nigel Utton said, “It’s a dangerous departure from democratic norms. The actions we agree in planning could be there for hundreds of years.” Nevertheless, members voted not to hold virtual committee meetings, with Labour Cllr Roger Ryan saying “This is not the time for us to talk about garden extensions and conservatories, but about saving people’s lives and feeding them.” Planning Officer Mark Brown has said officers could decide not to use delegated powers for particularly contentious decisions and that the measures would be reviewed in three months.
In Manchester, decisions about garden extensions and conservatories are unlikely to come to the planning committee. MCC’s explains: “As part of the normal planning process, only a small number of planning applications are determined by committee. The large majority of applications are determined by delegated powers by planning officers.”
MCC’s scheme of delegation – how it decides whether an application will be determined by committee or delegated powers – isn’t clear. The Council says “in ‘normal’ times, even if a planning application receives objections it could, under the scheme of delegation, be determined under delegated powers”. In the context of the committee’s powers being delegated at this time, they say, “Applications will vary and there is no specific type of application that either will or will not be considered under the emergency powers”. The Council’s constitution says applications are delegated “either where there is no objection from third parties of a planning nature or where there are objections from third parties of a planning nature but the proposal is clearly in accordance with approved Council planning policies”.
Regarding upcoming planning applications, Manchester Council says the process by which the public can respond remains the same:
“Planning reports will be published on the Council’s website and comments from Council members and the public will be received and considered as normal. Statutory planning publicity and site notices will also continue as normal and we would invite people to make representations as they usually would. When a decision is made on a planning application it will be posted on the Council’s planning portal in the usual manner.”
With Hulme councillors unsure of how the public can object to schemes, however, it seems this process is not running smoothly or transparently. In response to the planning applications in Hulme and inability to confidently object, residents vented their frustrations on Twitter. Airing an evident sense of frustration – and perhaps referring to recent controversial planning schemes waved through in Hulme – Mark O’Donnell responded: “It never seems to end. Quality of life of long term residents means absolutely nothing to [MCC] when reviewing these applications. We will no doubt get the usual plethora of meaningless drivel about supporting the community and engaging with residents. It never happens, money rules.” Yoga teacher Tara Barton said simply: “That’s outrageous – this should not be happening!” With other councils adopting more democratic processes, and without any legal barriers in the way, more and more people are likely to agree.
By Andrea Sandor
Research contributed by Alex King
What you can do:
Write to your councillor regarding the current planning committee arrangements in Manchester.
Respond to applications on the register of “non key decisions” being taken under Covid 19 arrangements.
Stay up to date on Manchester’s consultations and surveys.
Contact Cllr Annette Wright to respond to the student accommodation and/or Gallery Gardens development in Hulme.
Respond to the Manchester Arena scheme by 7 May.
Respond to the Back of Ancoats scheme by 15 May.