The below article was released on Wednesday 17 June, prior to the government announcement on the 22 June.
It has now been over three months since lockdown began and the Prime Minister announced restrictive measures on personal movement, and the country has adapted with considerable dexterity to a new way of life, albeit some restrictions are now being lifted. Most offices have been shut and those members of the workforce who can work from home are doing so and are urged to continue for the foreseeable future.
However, some businesses are returning to work, mainly those whose staff cannot sensibly work from home, or where there is a physical impossibility, such as in the case of construction activities. This may represent ‘baby steps’ at present, as businesses contemplate the economic impact of the pandemic and how their respective markets will have been impacted, but over time we will all be expected to try and get back to the world we were used to, or something approaching it, with social distancing a central feature.
Our Planning & Development teams across the country have been working remotely since lockdown and have been able to observe, at close quarters, how the planning system has adapted, or is adapting, to the changed circumstances.
While we applaud our industry for its flexibility and willingness to meet new challenges imposed by COVID-19, we also recognise that the Government should take immediate further action to aid processes. Below we have outlined our thoughts.
The planning industry’s response so far to COVID-19
Overall, we would conclude that positive flexibility has been shown and that all parties have been willing to ‘do their bit’ to ensure that the ‘planning wheels’ have kept turning. In no specific order, we would highlight the following progressive measures:
- The ability to ensure that engagement with local authorities and other statutory bodies can continue and is ‘business as usual’ because of utilising videoconferencing facilities for pre-application meetings and more routine discussions.
- Legislation passed by Government to ensure that planning committee meetings can be held virtually up to 7 May 2021 (The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020).
- The decision made by some authorities to delegate a greater number of planning applications to chief officers as all become accustomed to virtual committees.
- Progress made by the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) in terms of progressing appeals virtually when hearing sessions are needed and by allowing some decisions to be made without site visits. Also, in ensuring that some Local Plan hearing sessions are held virtually.
- The ability to publicise applications and EIA development not just by site notice but to rely on web-based applications and on social media.
- The introduction of time-limited emergency permitted development rights until 31 December 2020 to support service bodies and local authorities’ immediate response to coronavirus.
- Amendments to the Community Infrastructure Regulations 2010 to enable charging authorities to defer payments of CIL, to temporarily disapply late payment interest and to provide a discretion to return interests where they consider it appropriate to do so. These measures applying to developers with an annual turnover of less than £45 million.
- Changes to the neighbourhood planning process to support local authorities and to provide some reassurance to communities with neighbourhood plans that are awaiting referendum.
- The good humoured and collaborative working of all involved in the process, seeking to ensure that sustainable developments are delivered wherever possible and in the shortest timescale possible in these most uncertain times.
Further actions we would like to see the Government take
While we have seen the planning industry adapt and evolve over past months, we do suggest that there are a number of ways in which the Government could ‘go further’. We have outlined our thoughts in the hope that our suggestions will be picked up either in immediate legislation or within the Planning White Paper, which is due imminently.
Outlined below, our ‘manifesto’ for further change we would like to see includes not only recommendations that are a direct response to the COVID-19 crisis, but also proposals that simply seem sensible and will aid the planning process in the future.
With the above considered, we suggest that the Government:
We firmly believe new legislation and fresh momentum is required to aid the nation’s economic recovery, and some measures previously thought to be ‘no go areas’ must now be embraced openly.
In 1947 the Government of the day passed the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act to aid the post-war recovery. The current pandemic, different though it is, requires an equally robust policy response so that we can get the country moving forward once again.
For further information, or to speak directly to one of our Planning & Development professionals, please contact us.