A Response to Covid-19: Keeping Planning Moving!
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government issued their latest Planning Update Newsletter to all Local Authorities, with the expected focus on the implications of the ongoing COVID-19 situation for the planning system.
The letter largely confirms updates which have already been widely publicised but there are two key themes; firstly, ensuring that measures are being taken to overcome the impacts of the disruption arising from COVID-19 on existing and imminent applications and appeals, and then secondly, making sure the planning system is responding to the significant and rapidly changing demands being placed upon society by the pandemic.
For Local Authorities the message is clear – an innovative and pragmatic approach is needed with all options to be explored in order to continue to process applications promptly and with a specific focus on ensuring the planning system continues to support local economies. The Government is intending to introduce legislation to allow Council meetings to be held virtually, but at the same time encourages the increased delegation of planning decisions. DHA continue to liaise with Local Authorities throughout the South East on the arrangements they are putting in place and it remains encouraging to see the number of Authorities who quickly began exploring ways to use technology to deliver Council services and Committee meetings, whilst using increased delegation to limit the pressures on those Committees.
Specific mention is made of permitted development prior approval applications, given some of those benefit from a deemed consent period. The MHCLG want Local Authorities to continue to prioritise those applications so they continue to deliver economic activity, but do highlight that extensions of time may be granted in exceptional circumstances, or that Authorities should refuse those applications if they cannot be given the requisite attention. The approach of agreeing an extension corresponds much better with the pragmatic approach being encouraged by Government so it will be important to continue to liaise closely with Authorities regarding all applications to ensure that where necessary and appropriate extensions of time are being put in place.
The Planning Inspectorate are currently not holding any appeal Hearings or Inquiries or Local Plan Examinations but continue to review the ability to use technology to conduct those events or to instead deal with suitable appeals via a written process. The introduction of those new processes will undoubtedly bring delays to both appeals and Local Plans as PINS grapple with the ability to effectively deal with complex appeals and examinations in a manner which allows for effective involvement for all parties.
The legislation allowing pubs and restaurants to operate as takeaways for hot, cold and pre-prepared food until 23rd March 2021 has now been enacted. Businesses must inform their local authority that a premises is being used or is intended to be used as a takeaway.
The powers to operate a business as a takeaway do not affect the status of any existing planning conditions controlling elements such as the opening hours of the premises. However, the MHCLG have provided a clear steer that local authorities should be pragmatic in enforcing any restrictions relating to food, essential deliveries or any other conditions which hinder the effective response to COVID-19. Hopefully both local authorities and neighbouring residents will approach those cases with the necessary sense of pragmatism, but in any cases where there are concerns regarding compliance with existing conditions the prudent approach will be to apply to have those varied for a similar temporary period. Full planning permission will then be needed for any businesses wishing to continue to operate as a takeaway on a permanent basis beyond March 2021.
The overarching message of the MCHLG letter is summarised in a single sentence; ‘Be practical, be pragmatic and let’s plan for the recovery’. It will be important for the planning system to continue to be adaptable given the wider situation is constantly evolving and with there being no clear indication of how long it will continue either in the UK or other countries. Consumer demand for food and other key goods continues to rise and is exacerbated by COVID-19 placing significant restrictions on the amount of food and goods being imported from other countries. If ongoing uncertainty over demand and imports continues then it will be important that the planning system reacts to help support the production of the most important foods and goods in the UK as quickly as possible to ensure supply chains are resilient.
The planning system, like most industries, is facing a unique challenge but one which may force both the introduction of technology and new practices where not previously used, together with a renewed sense of pragmatism which will continue to play a part in planning as the country eventually moves into recovery.
DHA continues to review the developing situation, working with closely with our Local Authority Partners and advising our clients on the implications of any changes to the planning system, so please get in touch if you do have any queries.
Let's keep Planning moving!
Alex Hicken, Managing Director