Coronavirus (COVID-19): planning update

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has published an update on planning matters, including temporary measures to make it easier to operate the planning system during the coronavirus crisis.

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THE GUIDANCE

The Chief Planner newsletter of 23 March gave initial advice on the implications for local planning authorities of the current COVID-19 restrictions. We have been listening to stakeholder feedback about the practical issues resulting from the current situation and this update sets out the position on these – in some cases it is right that immediate action is taken and we update on these actions below, in others it is more appropriate to monitor impacts before taking any steps.

The current public health guidelines have had a profound impact on how local planning departments can operate, and, in many authorities, local planners and support staff are contributing to the wider response to COVID-19. We understand the pressure that authorities are under, and the importance of practical measures which can ease the impact as well as support the wider efforts to keep the country running. It is important to keep the planning system moving as much as we can, so that it is able to play its full part in the economic recovery to come, at both national and local levels.

We are aware many local planning authorities are already taking innovative action to ensure this happens, and we welcome the commitment and flexibility being shown by planning departments, elected Members and everyone working in the planning system across the country.

On the 13 May 2020 we announced measures to further support house building. We are taking steps to allow more flexible working hours on construction sites which will support these sites in meeting social distancing requirements, allowing varied start and finish times. In addition, we have issued a statement that site visits and the use of digital technology and virtual meetings should become the norm in planning casework.

To provide further help during this exceptional period, we are also introducing a range of temporary measures to make it easier to operate the planning system, especially the development management process, within the current public health guidelines:

Community Infrastructure Levy

The Community Infrastructure Levy regulations provide only limited flexibility to local authorities to defer payments. Both local authorities and developers have expressed concerns over the impact this may have on developer cashflow at the present time.

In view of this, we intend to help small and medium sized developers by introducing amendments to the Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations 2010 to enable charging authorities to defer payments, to temporarily disapply late payment interest and to provide a discretion to return interest already charged where they consider it appropriate to do so. The easements can be applied to developers with an annual turnover of less than £45 million. It is intended that these easements will not be open-ended and will be removed when the economic situation has recovered.

CIL regulations are subject to an affirmative resolution procedure, which requires debate in Parliament. However, existing flexibilities and the government’s clear intention to legislate should give authorities confidence to use their enforcement powers with discretion and provide some comfort to developers that, where appropriate, they will not be charged extra for matters that were outside of their control.

Further guidance for local planning authorities on the use of developer contributions under the current circumstances has been published.

New time-limited permitted development rights

A new time limited emergency permitted development right came into force at 10am on 9 April 2020 until 31 December 2020. The right supports health service bodies and local authorities’ immediate response to coronavirus.

The right is wide ranging, allowing for development by or on behalf of a local authority or health authority body for the purposes of preventing an emergency; reducing, controlling or mitigating the effects of an emergency; and taking other action in connection with an emergency. The right enables development including, but not limited to, change of use for existing buildings and new temporary modular buildings. The rights could be suitable to provide permission for a range of uses including use as hospitals, health facilities, testing centres, coroner facilities, mortuaries, additional residential accommodation and storage and distribution, including for community food hubs.

There is no application process, and health service bodies and local authorities who are not the planning authority are required only to notify the local planning authority of the use of the development on a site as soon as practicable after commencing development. We expect this will be by e-mail or in writing.

Validation of applications

Many local planning authorities have already taken action to encourage all planning applications to be made online to avoid the need for staff to work in the office. This should continue to enable the remote processing of planning applications to continue as far as possible to support the latest social distancing guidelines. Authorities should make this clear on their websites and contact local agents to inform them that applications should be submitted online. However, it is important that arrangements are in place to ensure paper applications can still be validated.

Priority should continue to be given to the validation of any urgent COVID-19-related applications for planning permission and associated consents, including hazardous substance consents, where statutory consultees if necessary, should be contacted immediately.

Determination timescales

We do not intend to change the determination timescales for planning applications set out in the Development Management Procedure Order 2015, although we acknowledge timescales may not be met in all cases. Developers should be encouraged to agree extensions of time where necessary but retaining the timescales means there is still the option to appeal to the Secretary of State on the grounds of non-determination.

Publicity and consultation for planning applications

From Thursday 14 May we are introducing temporary regulations to supplement the existing statutory publicity arrangements for planning applications, listed building consent applications and environmental statements for EIA development in response to the coronavirus.

Local planning authorities (and applicants of EIA development under the TCPA) now have the flexibility to take other reasonable steps to publicise applications if they cannot discharge the specific requirements for site notices, neighbour notifications or newspaper publicity. These steps will notify people who are likely to have an interest in the application and indicate where further information about it can be viewed online. These steps can include the use of social media and other electronic communications and must be proportionate to the scale and nature of the proposed development.

Guidance to accompany these regulations has also been published to highlight what alternative publicity local planning authorities could undertake. In particular, if local newspapers are not circulating in their area, authorities should seek to use local online news portals in the first instance.

Virtual planning committees

The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 were made on Thursday 2 April 2020 and provide the power for local authorities to hold virtual meetings. These regulations apply to all local authority meetings up to 7 May 2021.

To ensure planning decisions continue to be made, local planning authorities should take advantage of these powers to hold virtual planning committees – rather than deferring committee dates. They should also consider using ‘urgency powers’ within their constitutions to give senior officers delegated authority to make decisions.

We are working with the Planning Advisory Service to provide practical advice to local authorities through online guidance and web-based training on how to manage planning committees and continue decision-making during this time and their latest guidance can be found on the Planning Advisory Service website. As part of this work, the Planning Advisory Service will be engaging authorities to learn about their practical experience of virtual planning committees.

Local Plans

We continue to want to see Local Plans progressing through the system as a vital means for supporting economic recovery in line with the government’s aspirations to have plans in place across the country by 2023. We recognise the challenges that some local authorities may face, and are working on ways to address this, from actively exploring options to achieve online inspection of documents being the default position to engaging with the Planning Inspectorate on the use of virtual hearings and written submissions. We have also issued additional planning guidance on reviewing and updating Statements of Community Involvement.

Neighbourhood Plans

We have introduced changes to the neighbourhood planning process to support local authorities and provide some reassurance to communities with neighbourhood plans that are awaiting referendum.

  • Regulations linked to the Coronavirus Act 2020 mean that no elections or referendums can take place until 6 May 2021. This includes neighbourhood planning referendums. These provisions will be kept under review and may be amended or revoked in response to changing circumstances.
  • We updated current planning guidance on 7 April 2020 to set out that neighbourhood plans awaiting referendums can be given significant weight in decision-making. The guidance, which was further updated on 13 May 2020, also provides further advice on the implications for conducting publicity and consultation, and examinations.
  • As set out in the recently published Chief Planner’s newsletter, we will allow local authorities to make claims for new burdens grants at an earlier point in the neighbourhood planning process.

We will continue to explore whether further changes are needed.

Compulsory purchase

We are aware that the current response to COVID-19 has implications for the making, confirming and implementing of Compulsory Purchase Orders. The government wants to see CPOs continue to be progressed. But we recognise the statutory process for making and confirming a CPO under the Acquisition of Land Act 1981 has several requirements which are more challenging to achieve within current public health guidelines, such as in relation to public access to documents. Acquiring authorities should consider pragmatic ways of adhering to these requirements given the exceptional circumstances. We have issued further guidance to help acquiring authorities on specific matters.

Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects

We are working closely with consenting Departments to support the continuation of decision-making, and with the Planning Inspectorate and National Infrastructure Planning Association to minimise the impact of current restrictions on the consideration of DCO applications.

Where to go for additional information

GOV.UK provides a single point of government advice on COVID-19. The public services section contains advice from the Planning Inspectorate on casework and examination handling, and we will be adding to this as guidance is updated, so please check the page regularly. Best practice advice and links are also available on the Planning Advisory Service website.

We will provide further updates in due course.

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