New rules for council meetings to be held virtually online have led to claims that Shropshire Council is using the coronavirus pandemic to become less democratic.
The authority’s first planning meeting since before the lockdown is scheduled for next week after arrangements were made for meetings to be held remotely, with committee members and council officers participating from their homes.
But in moving the process online, the council has drawn up new rules which mean applicants, their agents, town and parish council representatives and members of the public will no longer be able to address the committee.
Instead, written submissions must be submitted five days in advance, and will be read out by the council’s solicitor at the meeting.
The move has led to complaints from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) that applicants are being given an unfair advantage.
In a letter to the council’s head of planning, CPRE Shropshire planning spokesman Charles Green said: “There have been noises on the airwaves for some weeks from various bodies concerned that some local authorities might however use the current crisis and the Coronavirus Act 2020 to incrementally shut down democratic accountability.
“I didn’t believe that Shropshire Council would be one of them. However, your proposed new virtual planning committee process shows that you do indeed intend to reduce the scope of democratic involvement.
“There has never previously been any requirement that public speakers at planning committees should submit a written transcript before they speak.
“The requirement to submit a written transcript, and to do it only two days after the publication of probably voluminous papers is a profound curtailment of democratic freedom.”
The council also says objections will be shared with the applicant who will then have until the day before the meeting to respond – but applicants’ comments will not be shared with objectors in advance of the meeting.
Mr Green said: “This flies in the face of any previous protocols and thereby does carry the implication that Shropshire Council is deliberately trying to shift the balance in favour of the agent/applicant.”
The council said it had interpreted government guidelines which encouraged councils to take an “innovative approach” to adjusting its decision making processes.
Head of planning Ian Kilby said: “We have worked hard to come up with a process utilising the technology available in a way which is safe for all users, and easy to follow for those taking part or listening in.
“An added benefit is that the virtual committee process will extend access to planning committees to a much broader audience.
“In adapting the public speaking process to require written submissions that will be read out at the meeting, it will also provide a focus for public speakers to consider the content and points they wish to make, and ensure those submissions are heard by the committee and public in a virtual meeting, avoiding the risk of any technological barriers preventing those submissions being made.
“We hope the CPRE will be reassured by the process we have devised to extend public access to planning committee meetings in a virtual manner, once such a planning meeting has taken place.”