We have run a number of community round table discussion events over the last few months. Following these events, we decided to put together a survey to better understand the experience of Community Councils with the planning system during the pandemic.

The survey is now complete and 154 respondents from 135 Community Councils across Scotland shared their views on:

  • whether they felt able to fulfil their statutory planning process functions during the Covid-19 restrictions
  • whether they are using digital platforms to meet virtually
  • what could be done to help Community Councils engage in the planning system while restrictions are in place.

We would like to thank Miguel Silva Barral – a PAS volunteer – for undertaking the analysis of the survey responses. Please see a summary of the responses to each question below.

Ability to fulfil their statutory planning functions

  • 43% of respondents feel they have been fully able to fulfil their planning functions
  • 36% only partially
  • 20% have felt unable to do so.

Equalities – A majority of those who felt partially able or unable to participate cite as a reason not all members of the community having access or skills to join videoconferences. Community councils address this issue by informing those unable to meet by email or post or having designated member/s find relevant applications and consult others one by one instead of meeting. Some community councils are unable to fulfil their duties because they are not meeting at all in solidarity with some or many of their members who do not have online access. Other reasons include lack of information, difficulties coordinating, or having been explicitly instructed by the local authority not to meet.

Challenges in communication – Many respondents highlight the limitations of meeting online, which remove spontaneity and immediacy to the interactions with members and officers, make visualisation of proposals more difficult, and are generally less prone to spark dialogue. In addition, meeting online comes with technical issues, most often the restrictions on the use of video conferencing platforms due to data protection concerns, but also having time-restricted meetings, and bandwidth constraints.

Less scrutiny – There is also concern expressed about development going forward with less scrutiny, due to the diminished communication, the lack of site visits, and timescales for submitting representations not being extended on a par with the slowdown of the process. Some responses complained that the council meetings were not open to the public, harming transparency.

Other issues – Other issues arose including: insufficient information being available online or made available late; more difficulty in contacting officers and councillors, either because of them not having access to a phone while working from home, not picking up postal mail, or being slower in responding emails; difficulty in contacting neighbours; councillors not taking part in meetings; and in one particular local authority, a low character limit in the online representation form. A number of community councils also have not met because no need arose for them to do so.

Use of digital platforms

  • 57% are using digital platforms to meet virtually
  • 43% are not meeting online

57% are using digital platforms to meet virtually – If we break the responses down even further, based on respondents’ perceived ability to fulfil their planning functions, 67% of those who felt fully or partially able to fulfil their planning functions have been meeting online, whilst 17% of those who felt unable to fulfil their planning functions made use of such platforms. This shows an expected positive correlation between making use of online meetings and the ability of community councils to carry out their functions.

72% of respondents are holding meetings monthly, with 7% meeting more frequently and 21% meeting less often than that.

The most popular platform is Zoom, used by 79% of respondents, followed by Teams (10%); other means mentioned are Facetime, Whatsapp, Webex, Facebook, and telephone conference call. Many community councils use email in addition to their regular meetings and meet informally in between sessions as needed. A number of community councils use a website and social networks to communicate with the wider community, with a few using newspaper adverts and physical media.

43% are not meeting online – The most frequently cited reason was the lack of IT facilities or abilities for some or all members of the community council. This tends to be more often the case in areas with an elderly population, or areas ranking lower in the SIMD, which highlights the problem that sensitive groups are more easily left out of the planning process.

Other respondents were unwilling to meet virtually, and in a few cases they were instructed by the local authority not to use online meeting platforms. However, half of those community councils that are not meeting online are keeping in touch, by email or other means.

A third of respondents that identified as fully or partially able to fulfil their functions did not meet online. Their most used means of communication is email, but also phone and leaflets; in a number of cases the community council designates a member to monitor relevant applications and brief the other members, and then writes a representation based on the views collected by email.

In some cases where not all members are able to attend meetings, a summary of communications is sent by email or post asking to respond by email, telephone or writing, in an attempt to include those community members without access to online meetings.

What could be done to help Community Councils during the Covid-19 restrictions?

33% of respondents indicated that they are satisfied with the state of things and require no further help, and indeed some report an improved ability in engaging in planning.

There is general agreement across the spectrum that local authorities should facilitate members and parties to access IT facilities or give assistance in using them or ensure that members without IT access are reached by means other than online. Several community councils request that Zoom meetings be allowed or be given the same status as in-person meetings.

Community councils demand better communication with planning departments and councillors; this includes keeping community councils informed by email updates, officers being available on the phone, planning departments to notify community councils of relevant applications rather than relying on them searching, and faster response to emails. It is also requested that planning lists sent to community councils only comprise those relevant to the community, as wading through long lists may be daunting.

Improved access to the local authority planning portals is a common request, as well as the timely update of the documents within them. The possibility of viewing physical plans, be it by delivery or by visiting the local authority offices, was also brought up.

Many respondents call for an extension of the deadlines for submitting representations to planning applications. In addition, raising the character limit in online representations and accepting hardcopy correspondence were also raised. Several respondents think that it might be possible to resume in-person consultation events in keeping with the safety measures, in particular for larger applications. This is to allow participation of community members without online access and to make communication easier.

Additionally, it was requested that the Local Authorities encourage and facilitate involvement in online events, as well as public participation in full Council and Planning Committee meetings. Indeed, there is concern that the lack of face-to-face meetings has harmed the democratic process, by lessening participation, making it more difficult understanding the application without site visits, and generally diminishing engagement.

Due to the complexity of some planning applications, in particular now that physical models and live explanations are not possible, it is suggested that applications provide easy to understand graphics, including 3D visualisations and videos, and that complex applications with extensive documentation have a summary document. It was also asked that Planning Authorities provide assistance with understanding and responding to large scale applications, and training on how the planning system works. Guidance in the role of community councils during Covid-19 has also been suggested.