Coronavirus has hit everyone and the current “lockdown” is going to continue for some time. Most people are working from home or are furloughed and this is no different for most Local Authority planning officers. Some restaurants are diversifying to offer delivery services where they can.
Coronavirus is a huge challenge for local government and impacts the planning system in a number of ways. Some planning officers are being considered “key workers” and some are being redeployed into other service lines.
Business as usual?
As expected, there are new challenges to the preparation and submission of planning applications especially if site surveys have not been carried out:
- Occupied sites and movement restrictions preventing surveys for floor plans and consultancy reports such as noise assessments;
- Postroom closure at Local Planning Authorities preventing the sending of site notices;
- LPA communication difficulties and lack of adequate home working facilities;
- Staff absence;
- Virtual meeting quality;
- New LPA delegated powers for determining applications.
In some cases consultancy reports will not be possible. For example, on-street parking surveys would provide false reporting as traffic conditions are not normal and children are at home.
Steve Quartermain CBE in his last letter as Chief Planner to the Government has written to councils outlining the priorities for central government. Letter attached.
Quatermain has asked LPAs to take and innovative approach to processing planning applications and encourages the use of technology.
Since then the Government has introduced legislation to allow committee meetings to be held virtually.
The government regard prior approvals as important to contributing to economic activity. Traditionally prior approval dates were not extendable. However, the letter advises agreeing extensions to approval dates with applicants where necessary.
Highlights the written ministerial statement urging local authorities to relax restrictions on food and other essential deliveries at this time. The letter also encourages Local planning authorities to use discretion on the enforcement of other planning conditions would be considered to “hinder” the effective response to COVID-19.
Permitted Development Rights
The government has imposed lockdowns for all pubs, restaurants and cafes but can remain open to provide a takeaway service. For a 12-month period from Tuesday 24 March, there is new Permitted Development Right (PDR) to enable pubs, restaurants and cafes to operate as hot food takeaways (A5 use class). The relevant pub, restaurant and café will remain in its current use during this time.
The letter encourages LPAs to continue progress with local plan making and to work proactively with the community and key stakeholders.
Implications for day to day decision making
There are two major implications.
- Officers will try their best to make use of technology for meetings but expect many to be harder to get hold of than normal and technical difficulties being a regular occurrence.
- Delegated powers (officer decisions rather than committee led) are likely to be strengthened meaning more cases are likely to be determined by officers and more junior officer sign off. This can be a good thing for speeding up decision making but also increases the risk of officers rushing decisions and refusing applications that may be approved with better communication and negotiation.
There may also be a greater use of delegated powers. This can be a good thing as it may speed up decision making, but you need to be sure that the application is not just being funnelled to an experienced junior officer who might rush a refusal just to get a decision out and the matter off their desk.
Where committees take place, they will take place via virtual conference facilities. There will be early issues with security compromises, and we would expect an uptick in legal challenges to all decision making.
Planning Permission time limits
Many developers will be trying to commence development or keep decisions alive.
We are still waiting for more formal provisions to extend the life of planning permissions that are currently limited to three years. For basic permissions, you may consider re-applying before the expiration of the existing permission and asking the Council to consider the circumstances. This is particularly pertinent where a Local Authority has changed policy to your detriment.
You can also look to start works though this is often easier said than done. Confirming works have commenced can be agreed via a Certificate of Lawfulness.
More on this in SIMONICITY’s excellent blog.
For Developers/homeowners/landlords in the fortunate position to only be compromised by working conditions, there will presumably be a downturn in application volume at the same time as resource provision temporarily being stable. It may result in great attention to individual applications and the challenging economic environment should encourage greater flexibility from LPAs.
The government is still looking at new PD Rights for Roof Extensions and are set to publish a White Paper. It is not worth speculating when this PD right becomes a reality and what the conditions will be. There will be opportunities to convert uses that will be under pressure from the pandemic. Already struggling pubs, clubs and some leisure uses will offer potential for alternative occupants.
There are a whole series of questions for planners and developers in the long term:
- What is the work environment going to look like;
- Will there be any justification for airport expansion? Indeed, will airports start to close/rationalise their operations;
- Will universities continue to expand campuses and city centres continue to be the focus of regeneration?
- Will the Community Infrastructure Levy survive?
WEA Planning are working from home during the lockdown and are here to help.