In common with everything else in these unusual days, the restrictions imposed on movement as a result of the coronavirus outbreak have had a huge impact on the planning system, resulting in well-publicised delays to local plan examinations and public inquiries. However, it is a credit to decision-makers at both a national and local level that great efforts are being put into reducing the disruption as far as possible.

To date, these efforts and changes have included the following:

The Coronavirus Act

Passed in Parliament last week, in addition to giving the Government considerable powers, this emergency legislation allows the convening of planning committees via video-conferencing, addressing a major potential hurdle to planning decision-making.

Temporary relaxation of planning regulations

Extended permitted development rights came into force on 24 March 2020 to enable pubs, restaurants and cafes to operate as food takeaways for a 12-month period. This is on top of other government advice aimed at cutting red tape, for example the Written Ministerial Statement by Robert Jenrick on the 13 March 2020, in which local planning authorities are encouraged to act flexibly, and not to take enforcement action that would result in unnecessarily restricting the deliveries of food and other essential items during this period.

Activity at local authorities

It is fair to say that the current performance of local authorities is mixed, but working from home has become commonplace in many councils over the last few years and in a lot of places decision-making is still happening, including at committee level (and we can expect this to increase as a result of the Coronavirus Act – see above). As a result, in local authorities with good technological support, the immediate impact has been relatively limited to matters which require human contact, such as meetings and consultations, and even here there seem to be improvements all the time.

Keeping the system moving

Last week the Chief Planner, encouraged local authorities to be innovative in decision making, including exploring opportunities to use technology for meetings and consultations, anticipating and seeking to address the areas of greatest challenge – ie officer/applicant meetings, and public consultation exercises (both pre-and post-application).

In short, things are changing on a daily basis, but one of the bright points of the situation is the commitment that the Government and many local authorities have to maintain their planning services as far as possible and under very challenging circumstances. Therefore, our advice to clients is that – where possible – development should continue to be vigorously promoted in order to ensure that proposals are in “pole position” once normality starts to set in again.

As the situation evolves, further updates will be circulated over the coming weeks. In the interim, to discuss this and any other queries arising as a result of the current situation, please contact Jason Lowes, Town Planning at Rapleys.

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