The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has announced further, temporary measures to make it easier to operate the planning system during the coronavirus outbreak.
The MHCLG said: “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.”
The planning update, which can be viewed here, includes measures relating to publicity and consultation for planning applications.
From tomorrow (14 May), the MHCLG will introduce 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,” the Ministry said.
“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.”
The MHCLG said guidance to accompany these regulations will also be 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.”
Other measures include:
- Community Infrastructure Levy: to help small and medium sized developers, amendments will be introduced 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. These ‘easements’ can be applied to developers with a turnover of less than £45m. It is intended that they will not be open-ended. 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.”
- New time-limited permitted development rights: The MHCLG highlights the new right that came into force on 9 April until 31 December 2020 for health service bodies and local authorities.
- Validation of applications: The encouragement of all planning applications to be made online should continue to enable the remote processing of planning applications to continue as far as possible. “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: The MHCLG says it does not intend to change the determination timescales for planning applications set out in the Development Management Procedure Order 2015, although it acknowledges 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.”
- Virtual planning committees: the Ministry highlights the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020. “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.”
- Local Plans: the MHCLG says it continues 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 temporarily relaxing requirements on community engagement and the need for physical documents, to engaging with the Planning Inspectorate on the use of virtual hearings and written submissions.”
- Neighbourhood plans: the MHCLG says it has 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. Current planning guidance has also been updated to set out that neighbourhood plans awaiting referendums can be given significant weight in decision-making. The guidance also provides further advice on the implications for conducting publicity and consultation, and examinations. Local authorities will be able to make claims for new burdens grants at an earlier point in the neighbourhood planning process.
- Compulsory purchase: 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.” The Ministry has issued further guidance to help acquiring authorities on specific matters.
- Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects: the MHCLG says it is “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.”
The planning measures have been unveiled at the same time as measures to further support house building. The latter include steps to allow more flexible working hours on construction sites. The MHCLG has also issued a statement that site visits and the use of digital technology and virtual meetings should become the norm in planning casework.
Cllr David Renard, Housing spokesman for the Local Government Association, said: “It is good that government has brought forward measures to ensure that planning departments can continue to operate effectively within current public health guidelines.
“We are pleased it has also acted on our calls by increasing flexibility on publicity requirements for planning applications and providing a clear steer to the Planning Inspectorate to make greater use of virtual technology and written submissions so that councils can quickly get Local Plans in place to support economic recovery."