As a planning consultant, I rather fancifully looked at committee meetings the same way as footballers would look at matchdays. Crowds may occasionally have dipped below the 90,000 that cram into Wembley, but they were equally keen to voice their support or concerns, and we always had a drink after to hopefully celebrate (but every now and then commiserate) with the client.
Like most other areas of life, COVID-19 has postponed these for the foreseeable future, and we find ourselves attending virtual meetings instead. Just this week, the proposed relocation of the Museum of London to West Smithfield and the associated redevelopment works – a scheme Gerald Eve advised on – was approved by the City of London planning and transportation committee in its latest virtual meeting. Whilst the application was submitted in a pre-lockdown world, on Tuesday the wider design team found itself separated and streaming the proceedings from the comfort of our respective kitchen tables.
Like all such meetings, it felt a little odd, but if the Museum of London decision shows anything, it’s that virtual committees rival their in-person equivalents for relevance, scrutiny and the ability to determine the ‘right’ outcomes for each application. The Museum of London’s move to West Smithfield is one that has been widely praised, and promises to rejuvenate a corner of The City that will in time become a cultural hub as well as a centre for commerce, part of Culture Mile.
That is not to say there aren’t challenges, of course. Virtual meetings are, by their nature, harder to read than an in-person committee, and there are the inevitable instances of frozen screens, muted microphones and lost connections that everyone has encountered over the past three months. But as members and contributors have got more used to the process, it has undoubtedly become slicker.
Live-streaming of virtual meetings also brings democratic benefits. I have no figures for how many people are ‘tuning in’ to the meetings as they happen, but I’m fairly confident it will be more than were turning up to the previous in-person format. Planning regimes thrive on transparency and engagement, and the more people take an interest in the process, the better.
What this shows, regardless of how long lockdown restrictions remain in place, is that virtual planning meetings of some kind are here to stay. Even when in-person meetings resume, it seems only right and proper that contributions can be made remotely, in line with the protocols we have all got used to.
Virtual meetings are a good example of how fleet-of-foot the planning system can be, when the situation demands it. We’ve seen that it works, even bringing some benefits over the previous way of doing things, and it would be foolish to not maintain the best elements of the virtual meeting system as and when we return to how things were before. Even if that makes my post-match drink a thing of the past.