The current crisis has presented the planning world with unprecedented challenges; from the logistics of local authority remote decision making to progressing appeals, implementing planning consents, and meeting CIL and s106 deadlines. Every area has been affected.
Some innovative responses and been swift and welcomed, while others are urgently awaited. Consideration needs to be given not only to the immediate difficulties, but the long term economic impacts which will affect the country for years to come.
First published on the Historic Towns & Villages Forum
On a positive note, many local authorities should be congratulated for having dealt rapidly with a huge change to their working practices. Kensington and Chelsea Council in particular were up and running within days of the Coronavirus Act enabling councils to hold remote meetings, holding their first virtual committee on 9 April, however some councils have struggled with moving online (and I’m not just referring to the infamous inaugural South Somerset zoom meeting and its unfortunate trolling). There are of course specific requirements which councils need to meet, particularly in relation to public involvement but planning decisions cannot be unduly delayed and local authorities unable to adapt quickly should be encouraged to rely on emergency powers to delegate decisions where possible. All local authorities will need to adapt rapidly as long lasting social distancing measures will make it imperative to establish new ways of conducting the full council meetings required for major and financial decisions and to ensure proper public involvement in processes such as development plan examinations in the future.
The speed with which local authorities have largely reacted (and the Planning Court which was up and running with virtual courts admirably quickly) has not been matched by the Planning Inspectorate which initially postponed all hearings and enquiries completely, citing concerns about site visits and public involvement and has only just commenced the first digital pilot hearing on 11 May. With nearly 10,000 open cases (and over 300 appeals submitted in the last three weeks) we hope that the aim to conduct fully digital and hybrid platforms for “most” cases within six months will be achieved, if not surpassed. It is vital that appeal schemes should not be delayed any further, but we have been assured that they are doing their best to work towards an early roll out of these platforms.
Local planning authorities are working with similar problems but are using technology to overcome them. Applications are still being accepted (with site visits more problematic we are advising applications be submitted with as much digital evidence as possible, with applicants making arrangements for site notices etc) and public involvement is being enabled through digital platforms. The Government has said it does not intend to extend determination timescales but is has just announced changes to publicity arrangements to give greater flexibility to the existing requirements. It is not yet clear why PINS is being so slow to adopt new measures and there is great concern as to how they will deal with the backlog of cases already building up, in addition to the delays in the appeal system that we were already experiencing.
An extended pause in development will only serve to escalate the county’s economic crisis.