CORONAVIRUS was the dark shadow lingering over a cabinet meeting as the council discussed the Buckinghamshire Local Plan – but by close of business members voted in the majority.

Climate change, Internet connectivity speed, and housing requirements were just some of the issues under consideration by Buckinghamshire Council Tuesday morning – but the pandemic forced every topic to be framed in what one attendee termed the “new normal”.

The purpose of Tuesday’s cabinet meeting was to set out plans that will shape the county’s future.

As a new unitary council, formed on April 1, Buckinghamshire Council is obliged to create a local plan within five years.

In the early stages the council sets out its “vision”, which it did – and then moves to call for potential sites across Buckinghamshire between now and December. All being well, the plan could be adopted by late 2024.

Thereafter, and in theory, the plan suggests it could be used up to 2050. It is expected to cost the council £750,000 every year, with a total of £3 million set aside for the next four years.

Read more: Council facing £39 million coronavirus spending bill

Steve Bambrick, service director of planning and environment, said in the meeting of the big changes in society, one consideration being reflected in the plan is the “new normal”.

The council must consider, he said, “aspects of planning we traditionally thought of as being very settled that will change”.

He said coronavirus forced the council to start “from a blank page” and publicly available community documents will help it deliver a “sustainable and robust” plan.

“One of the things we will look at is how we build more flexibility into our planning processes, so we are more agile in responding to things such as Covid or other circumstances,” he said.

Establishing a “broad, economic vision”, he said, would be helped by working with partners such as the Buckinghamshire Growth Board – a forum for public and private sector development and oversight.

Cllr Bill Chapple, cabinet member for environment and climate change, chimed in saying how 2020 had ushered in a “step change” in society, focussing attention more sharply on the issue of global warming and that it must be a “major stem” in council planning.

“Looking at 2050 is not a case of looking through 2020 eyes. We must look into the future… recognise the Buckinghamshire Plan will change… and put climate change upfront,” he added.

Warren Whyte, cabinet member for planning and enforcement, said climate change would be at the “core” of the local plan and that its framework would be “flexible” to allow for future innovation.

Superfast broadband across the county must also be a “top priority”, said Cllr Fred Wilson, cabinet member for regulatory services.

Government and developer input on national infrastructure for superfast broadband will be critical in implementing the technology and levelling-up Buckinghamshire, said Cllr Whyte.

“It’s a utility the same as gas or electricity,” said council leader Martin Tett. “We need to make sure that all new properties in the county, far as we can legislate for it, have that provided as standard.”

He added “high-speed, reliable” cellular connectivity, in addition to fibre, would be “in the mix”.

Read more: Buckinghamshire local plan explained in interactive timeline

On housing, Cllr Isobel Darby, cabinet member for housing and homelessness, said the council must dedicate in its plan the “maximum number” of “truly” affordable housing across the county. “‘Truly’ meaning the people who live in them can afford to!” she added.

Electric car charging points with discreet parking should also be a factor, said Cllr Tony Green, cabinet member for youth provision.

“Major benefits could spring” from the pandemic around roads, infrastructure, and air quality, said Cllr Patrick Hogan, cabinet member for culture.

He added however population projections on housing were critical, especially when government housing targets had previously been “300,000 a year, with 90,000 of those social housing”.

Cllr Hogan also cited Milton Keynes, the Oxford–Cambridge Arc, and Slough-Heathrow interplay as “potential pressures”.

“Really significant” changes by government in planning law are also still a “big unknown”, Cllr Tett added.

In closing, Cllr Tett said the local plan was a “defining” project that would affect Buckinghamshire for “decades to come” and he implored the public to participate as much as possible.