COVID-19 Adjustment and Innovation
As we all settle into some form of routine, working from home on desks in the spare room and video conference calls, we thought it prudent to reflect on the changes and challenges we are all facing in these difficult times.
The key message from the Government’s Chief Planner in his letter at the end of last month pressed for creative ways to continue the planning processes and relative decision making, especially where this will support the local economy. He calls for an innovative approach to be taken, using all options available to continue services.
We are all familiar with the online submission of planning applications, both via the planning portal and through email or CD submissions. The progression of applications in an electronic format is therefore well versed, however, the process and checking applications and confirming their registration carried out by administration staff will need to adapt to remote working through existing Local Authority systems.
The Chief Planner encouraged the consideration of delegating committee decisions where appropriate. The Government has confirmed that it will introduce legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period, which we expect will allow planning committees to continue.
The Coronavirus Act was fast tracked though parliament and received Royal Assent on 25th March. The Bill includes provisions (Section 78) which temporarily enable Councils to hold planning committees and other local authority meetings (including parish council meetings) without councillors being physically present. This allows remote participation or voting. It also allows alterations to the timing, location and frequency of meetings.
This is a welcome quick response to enable democratic decision making to continue in the current climate. The London Borough of Waltham Forest reported its first part-virtual committee this week, and it is hoped that other local authorities progress this approach to continue the decision-making process at committee level.
The Appeals Process
In response to the spread of COVID-19, the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) has published guidance on how it will continue to carry out its duties under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and the Planning Act 2008.
Understandably, the Planning Inspectorate has postponed all examinations, hearings and inquiries. However, the Inspectorate are trialling new technology and innovative ways to progress case work. This includes methods like video conferencing ensuring that everyone involved including local communities can participate fairly.
The Inspectorate are still accepting new appeals through its online appeals portal, and local plan and NSIP examinations are still progressing as the examination process is primarily a written one so can continue to make good progress.
Delays and Timescales
Notwithstanding the emerging focus and creative ways of continuing the planning process, delays are inevitable. Landowners and developers should therefore be careful to ensure that any extensions are formalised and any conditional requirements are adhered to.
All permissions are subject to conditions which require that consent is implemented within a specific timeframe, or outline permissions impose deadlines for the submission of reserved matters approvals. These deadlines cannot be extended and nor can they be circumvented by applying for the variation of the relevant conditions under Section 73 of the 1990 Act and therefore require careful monitoring and consideration.
There have been a number of calls from the development industry and others to extend the life of planning permissions during this difficult period which is currently being considered by the Government. At the other end of this at least one Tory MP has suggested suspending all decisions on current planning applications.
Following the closure of pubs and restaurants last week for on-site consumption, a wide range of establishments have continued to remain open providing a takeaway service. In support of pubs and restaurants this is secured through legislation extending permitted development rights for a 12-month period allowing these establishments to operate as hot food takeaways (A5 use class).
On a lighter note, at least we can still enjoy our favourite tipple and pub grub!
Whilst further Government advice should be forthcoming, thoughts still turn to how such changed decision-making will progress at all stages of the planning process. Looking forward, new approaches that are used in the coming weeks and months may offer routes to support a change to the planning system of the future.