Campaigners say Shropshire Council could face a legal challenge over its new local plan if it does not take into account how Covid restrictions have impacted people’s ability to have their say.
Action group Shifnal Matters is asking the authority to halt the seven-week consultation until libraries and council buildings are able to reopen, arguing county residents without online access are at risk of losing the chance to have their voice heard.
The current ‘regulation 19’ stage is the last phase of public consultation before the plan is signed off by the council ahead of its submission for government examination. It opened on December 18 and is set to close on February 5.
A letter from group representative Tony Jemmett to the council says: “As you are aware it is likely that the national lockdown will last until at least mid-February and it makes eminent sense to pause this latest consultation for the duration of the national lockdown and then continue with the same remaining time left as of now.
“By not pausing it is likely that there will be a legal challenge and because of the number of cases still to be heard in the courts, this case may not come up for a few months with the outcome being for the local authority to re-run the entire regulation 19 process again.”
The letter highlights the four ‘Gunning principles’ for public consultations, including the stipulation that “there is adequate time for consideration and response”.
Mr Jemmett says: “You have not taken into account the restrictions on public involvement and it is therefore against government guidelines.
“One of the stated consultations means for people without internet access is through public libraries.
“Shifnal library is now closed, as I assume are all libraries throughout Shropshire, resulting in those without internet access no longer being able to participate.
“The demographics of Shropshire on the 2011 census on your own website states that 24 per cent of the population (76,030 persons) in the county is over 65 and they are more likely to rely on libraries for internet access and are more likely to respond to consultations.
“Over 3 per cent are aged over 85 of which 64 per cent are women, again an age group that generally tends to respond to consultations.”
Shropshire Council has been asked to comment.