Positive Steps: Keeping the Planning System Moving

20th May 2020

Wednesday the 13th May marked a welcomed lift to some of the strict lockdown restrictions which the industry has been operating within for the previous 9 weeks. Amendments made to the Covid-19 regulations has allowed for increased working activities including visits to “estate agents or lettings agents, developer sales offices or show homes”.

This relaxation heralded a number of policy updates and announcements from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) in addition to the publishing of new planning regulations and the Business and Planning Act 2020. Below we provide a round-up of the positive steps made through recent announcements and legislation to support development and the planning system during this time.

Publicising of Planning Applications

Temporary regulations, expiring on 31st December 2020, have been introduced by the MHCLG allowing local planning authorities (LPAs) greater flexibility to take “other reasonable steps” in meeting existing statutory publicity requirements for planning applications. Such steps include “the use of social media and other electronic communications” and must be “proportionate to the scale and nature of the proposed development”.

The minimum period LPAs must give in a newspaper notice and on their website for representations “has been increased from 14 to 21 days (or longer where the period includes public or bank holidays)”.

Planning Appeals

The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) has announced that site visits have reconvened, with unaccompanied visits being undertaken where the Inspector can access the site/land without coming into contact with anyone.

Following a pilot digital appeal hearing on the 11th May, PINS have successfully progressed 11 cases via a series of virtual events including three National Infrastructure projects, three inquiries and one local plan hearing. The Business and Planning Bill granted the Planning Inspectorate the ability to use more than one procedure – written representations, hearings and inquiries – at the same time when dealing with a planning appeal, enabling appeals to happen more quickly.

Following previous criticism for removing published decision timeframes for appeals, PINS has since published its decision summary for July 2020, citing a mean average of 24 weeks for written Reps, 51 weeks for hearings and 23 weeks for inquiries.

Extended Construction Working Hours

MHCLG has been keen to impress upon LPAs that planning conditions should not restrict flexibility in construction site working hours and should instead facilitate safe working by allowing for staggered travel to sites and working hours. Where only “modest increases in working hours are required” LPAs can use their own discretion but are encouraged against enforcing a breach in working hours.

If longer term measures are required, applications should be made to amend associated conditions which LPAs should determine in 10 days. The advice indicates that “requests to work up to 9 pm Monday to Saturday should not be refused without very compelling reasons”. Any temporary changes to construction working hours, agreed by LPAs, should not extend beyond the 13th May 2021. We anticipate that the best way to achieve this change formally is through the use of a non-material amendment application.

S106 Obligations

As with planning conditions, LPAs are encouraged to take a “pragmatic and proportionate” approach to the enforcement of s106 obligations during the current crisis. The deferral of agreed payments should be considered through variations to existing s106 agreements and undertakings.

Community Infrastructure Levy

The Government has set out its clear intention to introduce legislation allowing LPAs to temporarily relax CIL regulations for developers with an annual turnover of less than £45 million through the deferral of payments, exemption to interest on late payments and the reimbursement of interest already charged. This proposed legislation is intended to provide the required flexibility to the current CIL regulations to assist in cash flow issues developers are experiencing.

This update is intended to provide LPAs with the confidence to use CIL enforcement powers with discretion and encourage the use of existing powers to allow developers to pay CIL in instalments. Read more…

Local Plans

The MCHLG has responded to calls to address the delay in the local plans process by progressing with the use of virtual hearings and written submissions. In mid-July 2020 the examination into the soundness of the South Oxfordshire Local Plan commenced, being the first to be run in this way.

PINS are looking at phasing this in for other local plan examinations, however the feasibility of doing so is ultimately dictated by how advanced the local plan is at this stage.

Find out more about the Local Plan and Neighbourhood Plan process here.

As a result of regulations linked to the Coronavirus Act 2020 no Neighbourhood Plan referendums can take place until 6th May 2021.

“These provisions will be kept under review and may be amended or revoked in response to changing circumstances,” the update states.

As per the April update by MCHLG, “neighbourhood plans awaiting referendums can be given significant weight in decision-making”. Further advice on the “implications for conducting publicity and consultation, and examinations” has now been provided. Read more…

We have already seen the introduction of virtual committees working well where implemented by LPAs. The announcements above provide further mechanisms to assist in the workings of the planning system during the coronavirus outbreak. It is perhaps too early to suggest that there is light at the end of the tunnel but the changes made are certainly welcomed and considered to go some way towards removing barriers to development at this time, which can give us confidence going forward.

For more information please contact Associate, Jamie Wallace or call us on 01256 766673.

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