How Covid has impacted the planning process

Local authorities have been urged by the Government to be ‘innovative’ in how they manage applications and workloads during the current Coronavirus crisis lockdown period.

Chief Steve Quartermain, outgoing Chief Planner at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, called on councils to ‘be practical, be pragmatic and let’s plan for the recovery’.

Acknowledging some councils are concerned about the implications of COVID- 19 for their capacity to process planning applications within statutory timescales, he said it was important for authorities to continue to provide the best service possible ‘in these stretching times’ and encouraged them to do their best to ensure the planning system continues to function, ‘especially where this will support the local economy’.

He wrote to council planning chiefs saying: ‘We ask you to take an innovative approach, using all options available to you to continue your service. We recognise that face-to-face events and meetings may have to be cancelled but we encourage you to explore every opportunity to use technology to ensure that discussions and consultations can go ahead. We also encourage you to consider delegating committee decisions where appropriate.’

He encouraged planners to work proactively with applicants, agreeing extensions to decision-making if necessary.

Recognising that there may be circumstances where a local planning authority is unable to consider a permitted development prior approval application within the relevant consent period, he noted: ‘It remains important to prioritise these so important economic activity can continue. In these exceptional circumstances the authority can, if necessary, seek to agree an extended approval date with the applicant. Where agreement cannot be reached an authority may need to consider whether prior approval is refused if the application cannot be considered with the requisite attention.’

The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) has published guidance on how it will continue to carry out its duties under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and the Planning Act 2008. It is considering alternative arrangements to conduct its oversight activity while some site visits, hearings, inquiries and events have been cancelled or postponed.

PINS has announced it will trial holding events using telephone or video conferencing where it is accessible to all parties and expects to hold its first digital pilot case either at the end of this month or early next month.

A trial of ‘virtual site visits’ with a small group of inspectors has also begun. If a case is deemed suitable for inclusion as part of this pilot, PINS will contact the main parties for their views.  A statement in mid-April said: ‘If this confirms that the proposed written representations appeal can be properly decided on the basis of digital images, a physical visit will not take place and the case will be decided purely on the basis of the written evidence received. This will include inviting the submission of further specific information. We will review this approach in a few weeks’ time before considering whether to extend the pilot.’

  • In non-COVID related planning news, the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, established in November 2018 to advise the Government on how to promote high-quality design for new buildings and neighbourhoods, making them more likely to be welcomed, rather than resisted, by existing communities, has published recommendations on future construction designs. The government is set to take forward many of the Commission’s recommendations and will publish its response alongside the forthcoming Planning White Paper. The Secretary of State has already announced that he intends to produce a National Model Design Code by Autumn to set clearer and more predictable parameters for securing well-designed places.