We are living in unprecedented times. Whilst our thoughts are with our brave key workers and those who have lost loved ones to this pandemic, out of these times of darkness can come bursts of light – a crisis can be fertile ground for innovation.
The planning sector is no different, with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) and PINS all having to adapt their offer to try and keep the planning system moving during lockdown. Unsurprisingly we have received many enquiries seeking guidance on the latest planning reforms in light of COVID-19 and to also understand if now, strategically, is the right time to make a planning application. In response, we have outlined the key questions and most recent information currently available below.
Are the Local Planning Authorities still working?
Yes, they are. LPAs are functioning and there is no need to postpone submitting applications. We have noticed inevitable delays with validation and decision making due to the current constraints. Therefore, delaying your submission further now may have a negative knock-on effect. And don’t forget, unless the permission states otherwise, you have three years to start work on a project following approval; even more of a reason not to delay.
Certainly the Chief Planner’s Update Newsletter (March 2020) saw Steve Quartermain, urging LPAs to ‘continue to provide the best possible service’, ‘prioritise decision-making’ and to ’take an innovative approach’, encouraging the exploration of ‘every opportunity to use technology to ensure that discussions and consultations can go ahead.’
A proactive and pragmatic approach seems to be the order of the day with LPAs asked only to seek to agree to extend the periods for decision making where necessary. Permitted development prior approval applications were also specifically mentioned, considering the challenges in trying to determine these within the deemed consent period. Steve Quartermain highlighted the importance of prioritising these types of application and confirmed that the LPAs can, if necessary, seek to extend the approval date with the applicant and if agreement to extend can’t be reached then refusal is permitted if the application cannot be considered without the requisite attention.
As for enforcement, site visits will undoubtedly be challenging during the current state of lockdown. However we have noticed that enforcement notices continue to be issued, however, as the Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) of early March stipulated, LPAs must apply pragmatism to any enforcement action which will hinder the COVID-19 effort.
What if my application must be decided at Planning Committee?
Although many committee meetings are being deferred or delayed, there is new legislation that means that committee meetings can temporarily be held via remote conferencing.
The emergency Coronavirus Act 2020 makes provisions for “persons to attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in, local authority meetings without all of the persons, or without any of the persons, being together in the same place”.
The regulation currently applies to meetings required to be held before 7 May 2021. LPAs have been busying themselves with the practicalities of setting themselves up for virtual planning committees and to date, there have been mixed successes, the interrupted committee at South Somerset being one that has hit headlines. Queries have also been raised about the potential legality of decisions made during these virtual committees, should for instance there be technological or other issues experienced during the proceedings, and it will be interesting to see how things progress once lockdown is eased and whether any of the decisions made will ultimately be challenged.
Are planning appeals impacted?
Yes, planning appeals require site visits to be made, and whilst restrictions are in place limiting unnecessary journeys, these site visits cannot take place. The latest update from PINS has stated that all site visits are postponed to mid-May, as well as most hearing and inquiry physical events where these would have otherwise taken place in May. They have been able to progress cases where:
- the physical event was concluded prior to lockdown restrictions;
- no physical event is required to make a decision; or
- a physical event is still further in the future and preparatory activity can continue (e.g. via telephone case conferences).
Unsurprisingly the number of open cases is on the rise.
You can still submit your appeal via the appeals casework page. Although hardcopies can be received by post there are substantial delays and it is strongly recommended to use electronic methods for sending any documents where possible to ensure a more timely receipt.
Before the COVID pandemic broke, PINS had been building on the findings of the Rosewell review and are in the process of trying to expedite the implementation of digital events to progress cases during this unprecedented time. Latest updates on this work includes:
- The first fully ‘digital’ hearing is due to take place on 11 May.
- PINS are preparing for additional cases to be heard by digital hearings/inquiries in May/early June with a view to scaling up digital events further over June/July.
- PINS are assessing postponed cases to establish whether they can proceed by digital, traditional or a ‘hybrid’ approach, in order to re-arrange these in due course accordingly.
- A trial of ‘virtual site visits’ is underway involving thirteen Inspectors.
- Five local advisory visits have taken place remotely (critical for helping Local Planning Authorities to progress local plans and reduce the length of examinations).
We are not currently aware of any changes in legislation, to date, extending the time periods for appeals to be made. Therefore it is important that should you be intending to make an appeal to a planning decision already made, you still make your appeal within the appropriate timeframe.
New planning legislation
To support the hospitality industry, a new Permitted Development Right (PDR) for takeaways came into force for a 12 month period which we wrote about here: Latest planning reforms on temporary permitted development rights for takeaways – what you need to know.
Furthermore, The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Coronavirus) (England) (Amendment) Order 2020 came into effect on 9th April 2020 relating to storage, delivery, and changes of use to support key workers in regard to the COVID-19 response effort. “to introduce a new permitted development right to allow local authorities and health service bodies to carry out development, both works and change of use, of facilities required in undertaking their roles to respond to the spread of coronavirus, without a requirement to submit a planning application”.
What if COVID-19 is preventing me from implementing a planning permission?
A number of key bodies have petitioned the Government to provide an urgent solution for planning permissions which can’t be implemented due to COVID and which therefore run the risk of expiring. As yet, there has been no formal response, but the Government did arrange for a separate application procedure to extend time limits on planning permissions during the last recession in 2009 and so one hopes they will respond accordingly given the likely longer-term impacts of the pandemic.
What next for planning and development projects in the wake of coronavirus?
Despite this health crisis, the UK continues to face a major housing shortage. Moreover, the pandemic has the very real potential to cause economic chaos. Businesses, landowners, and developers will need to be agile to manage the consequent risks and seize any opportunities that arise.
It is also worth remembering that planning permissions are valid for at least three years, so whatever the exit strategy following the grant of permission, there is flexibility to decide on your best option. This may be to implement the permission yourself, or sell your land with the uplift in value a planning permission can achieve, later down the line.
Furthermore, futureproofing and adapting your home or business for the post COVID-19 environment is a key concern for many of our clients. Have you considered the following to make the most of your assets?
- Repurposing redundant office/shop/warehouse/garage space – a change of use application could render underused space profitable for the future;
- Accommodating elderly relatives to care for them – an ancillary annexe application can be processed in 3 months;
- A barn or outbuilding that is becoming dilapidated – if you are thinking of converting an outbuilding into residential space – be mindful that the integrity of the building is key in its suitability for redevelopment;
- Extending your current property – we can help you submit your household application.
Although we are currently restricted in many of our day-to-day activities, we can use this downtime to reconsider our options. This can help us to ensure our homes and business are ready for post Covid-19 beginnings.
Contact our team via firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01242 501003 to see how we can best assist you, providing the site address and a brief overview of your project. You can also submit your site via our Landmark Page. We value your privacy and any information which you provide will not be shared outside of our company and will only be used in relation to your enquiry.