Planning and the Coronavirus

Civil engineer planning a dam

New laws have been brought into effect in a bid to stop the planning process grinding to a halt while the country is in lockdown. Apex Planning Consultants examines how these latest developments will work in practice…

The Coronavirus Act 2020 came into effect on 26 March 2020, bringing with it many measures that we are all too aware of, such as school closures, sick pay amendments, support for the NHS and so on.

For the planning world, the Act will allow some important changes, which will stop the whole planning procedure grinding to a halt, and allow some breathing space when it comes to certain planning deadlines.

Virtual committees

Planning Committees will see things change for a start. The new law will enable them to take place virtually. There has been an appetite for this to happen for some time, and it seems that COVID-19 has succeeded where others have failed. Previously, it has been technically possible for applicants and agents to speak to the Committee via video link, but the Committee itself has had to be physically present in sufficient numbers to form a quorum, as per the requirement of the 1972 Local Government Act. The new Act change that for meetings required to be held before 7 May 2021.

With the restrictions on gatherings, and the fact that many councillors are likely to come into the vulnerable category due to their age, this is a very necessary move if the whole planning process is not to come to a halt.

The supply of housing must continue, and it is especially important as the number of housing starts and completions dropped in the last quarter of 2019. There were around 34,260 new-build starts in England, 11 per cent less than the number started between July and September 2019, and 17 per cent less in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to approximate statistics from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Clive Docwra, managing director of construction consulting and design agency McBains, said: “The government’s ambitious housebuilding target – delivering a million homes in the next five years – was always going to be extremely challenging, and the latest statistics bear this out. However, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will mean this is now virtually impossible.’’

So it is vital that measures are undertaken to ensure planning applications are still being determined and with all necessary effort to ensure they are approved being taken. But virtual Committees will not be plain sailing – it will be new and different and will feel awkward for many. However, as time moves on, we will get used to the technology. That said, the reliance on technology will itself present a number of challenges: will the public, particularly the older generation, be happy to engage in the Committee system if they have to speak (to object or support) via video link?

We will all be reliant on stable technology and will have to make allowances for varying broadband strength and line stability. We will also need to be able to coordinate the video link platform, making sure that our PCs or tablets are compatible.  Notably, Section 5 of the draft statutory instrument to enact the change states a requirement that members must be able at all times ‘to hear (and where possible see) and be so heard (and where possible be seen) by the other members in attendance; to hear (and where possible see) and so be heard etc, by any member of the public entitled to attend the meeting; and to be heard (and where possible be seen) by any other member of the public so entitled who are present or accessing the meeting remotely’.

Undoubtedly, speaking via video link will feel odd. It may be more intimidating, as it will be harder to understand who is talking and to whom questions are directed. These issues may lead to arguments about the fairness of the virtual Committee system. It may lead to doubt over whether everyone has had an equal say.  Each will need a capable and strong Chairperson to manage the discussion process.

An advice note from the Planning Officers Society suggests that to assist in this matter, it may be helpful to reduce the number of elected members to the minimum necessary to maintain political balance, as well as the fewest possible officers.

Will it lead to a rise in legal challenges about how the decision was reached and result in more applications delays and added pressure on the planning system? We will have to wait and see, however, the fact we now have the legislation in place should to a large extent protect local planning authorities.

Apex Planning Consultants has already discussed a novel way to ensure the continuation of a planning application by discussing with a local planning authority how it might be possible to arrange a virtual site visit/meeting for a planning officer. This would see the applicant livestream on the application site, whilst the planning officer and Apex Planning Consultant join the ‘meeting’ and video conference. Together, this would mean we can direct the applicant around the site and discuss matters appertaining to the proposed development. This is a moving feast, of course.

Extended deadlines

With the closing down of many building sites, there will also need to be extensions added to planning timelines – these are covered under the new Act, covering the Building Control Act 1990, the Derelict Sites Act 1990 and The Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015. We expect to see guidance in the near future about reasonable extensions of time on approved planning applications where work has yet to be implemented.

Powers of delegation

In addition to virtual Committees it is possible that some local planning authorities will grant greater powers of delegation that would allow planning officers to make decisions on more applications. This could certainly avoid delays and cut down on the work associated with presenting applications at a Planning Committee and will arguably speed up the application process and could be a good short-term measure. However, it could be open to criticism, with opposers objecting to the lack of political dimension given to application decisions. Of course, applications should be determined on the planning merits and not emotive reasons, so, one might argue that increased delegated powers would address this matter.

In Manchester, for instance, planning decisions are to be taken by the council’s chief executive Joanne Roney for up to eight months, after councillors agreed to grant delegated authority. Ms Roney will consult with Julie Roscoe, the authority’s head of planning, licensing and building control, along with the chair and deputy chair of the council’s planning Committee on major planning decisions. They will be responsible for planning applications, listed building consent and tree preservation order applications that would normally go to Committee.

Elsewhere, Windsor and Maidenhead has also extended the scheme of delegation, however, when debating this matter its Councillors were advised by officers that if granted delegated powers, they would likely choose not to exercise them on particularly large applications on a delegated basis.

No doubt there will be pros and cons to increased delegation, with supporters and objectors from all sides (applicant and the public). As ever, nothing within the planning process will be perfect, and it will be impossible to please everyone.

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