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Councillors will decide today whether public hearings on controversial planning applications should take place ‘virtually’ in Argyll and Bute.
A report going before today’s planning, protective services and licensing (PPSL) committee sets out the options for hearings while social distancing restrictions remain in place.
The committee currently has two public hearings outstanding – a distillery in Port Ellen on Islay, and a new waste water treatment works on the Isle of Seil.
The committee will agree the next steps towards allowing hearings to proceed, as well as arrangements for site visits.
The report, by executive director Douglas Hendry, said it was necessary to assume attendance at public hearings of at least 43 people, including councillors and officers.
Yet most venues suitable for large gatherings remained closed at this time.
His report said: ‘Given these numbers and the logistics of maintaining public safety in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be difficult to arrange a traditional hearing as appropriate accommodation and social distancing would not be achievable – even if such a gathering was within the terms of what is permissible.’
The council could pause hearings – but that could leave the timescale for decisions uncertain and potentially create a backlog, particularly if there was a second wave of the coronavirus.
Delaying decisions on applications could also affect ‘economic recovery’, the council’s service performance and harm its reputation as being open for business, his report said.
Mr Hendry’s report said virtual meetings could continue with a review at the end of September.
His report said: ‘Virtual meetings to date have been held on an audio-only basis with limited use of video, given limitations with broadband speed and wider access to suitable technology.
‘Audio-only is a tried and tested process within the council, however the inclusion of video would allow for virtual arrangements to more closely mirror established hearing arrangements.
‘Both options require provision to be made for participant and public access to be made to the technology, and ICT have advised of existing technology enhancements to support this approach.
‘A virtual option would allow for the hearing process to be concluded without further delay and mitigate against current and any ongoing challenges in respect of public health factors and associated government restrictions and guidance.’
Mr Hendry added: ‘There is no doubt that the current exceptional circumstances in responding to the coronavirus present a real challenge with regards to local participation.’
The aim was to deliver a solution that enables hearings to continue in an ‘open, fair and impartial’ way, he wrote.
‘In the event of a decision to proceed on a virtual basis, a key message will be to ensure effective arrangements for community participation and that this different way of conducting our work does not undermine confidence in the transparency of the planning system. ‘