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The impact of coronavirus on the planning system

COVID-19 is causing widespread disruption to the UK planning system, which is there to ensure that the development and use of land is in the public interest. How can the right of the public to hold local decision-makers to account (and scrutinise plans for development) be protected during these difficult times? (Post written by Kate Gordon)

Local planning services have had to adapt the way they work due to COVID-19, as there are fewer staff available to work in planning departments (due to staff absence and local authority resources diverted to cover core services). What’s more, legislation has been passed to (temporarily) apply social distancing measures, meaning that the usual decision-making process within the planning system has also had to change. 

Friends of the Earth accepts the need to change the way planning services are delivered and decisions are taken. However, it’s paramount that the rights of the public to participate, have their voice heard in planning decisions and  be kept informed, are maintained and not diminished. Changes to the system should look to safeguard – and not undermine – transparency, democracy and participative opportunities. 

What changes to the planning system are taking place?

A key change concerns how planning authorities determine planning applications, with a shift towards virtual planning committee meetings. In some authorities, that shift has also prompted an increase in delegated decision making – where council officers decide a planning application, rather than elected Councillors.  

The recently-passed Coronavirus Act means the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person has been temporarily suspended. As an alternative, local authorities have been given new powers  to hold meetings remotely using video or teleconferencing facilities.

A new permitted development right has been established to enable pubs, restaurants and cafes to operate temporarily as hot food takeaways – something that would normally require a planning application. That development right  is time limited, expiring on 21 March 2021. Permitted development rights  have also been established for a temporary period for the creation of medical and related facilities – such as the Nightingale Hospitals in major UK cities.

How do changes affect planning where you live?

Local authorities are responding in a variety of different ways. While it’s obvious that a business-as-usual approach is neither possible nor desirable right now, it’s essential that the following be adopted and maintained:

  • sound principles to safeguard public engagement in planning decisions and plan-making
  • access to information
  • transparent decision making.

Where delegation of decisions to council officials (instead of elected Councillors) takes place, we believe this should be restricted solely to planning applications which are of a minor and non-controversial nature.  

Changes will likely require councils to amend their constitution, planning protocol1 and statement of community involvement (which sets out how the council intends to involve the community in deciding planning applications and preparing planning policies). 

All this will affect opportunities for the public to participate and be kept informed:

  • It won’t be possible to attend a planning meeting in person (eg to voice an objection), or meet with a council officer to discuss a planning application.
  • It’s as yet unclear how virtual planning committee arrangements  will preserve the ability of members of the public to address the committee, and what can be done to engage those without access to digital communication.
  • And with people venturing outdoors less often, they are less likely to see a public notice informing them of a planning application in their neighbourhood. Therefore the planning authority must consider further ways of alerting those who may be affected by a development proposal, such as through direct mail notification.2 

There is one potential benefit to moving online: virtual meetings may benefit people who are unable or disinclined to attend meetings in person – making them more inclusive for some. However, concerns remain that all-important public scrutiny isn’t happening in some areas, especially where more decisions are taking place behind closed doors or with fewer planning committee members involved. 

Plan making

Government has advised local authorities  to continue progressing their Local Plan and “work proactively with communities and other stakeholders”, amending their timescale if necessary. Authorities have been advised not to withdraw plans currently out to consultation, but to extend the deadline for people to respond to July 2020. Where physical consultation events were planned, these will be delayed or replaced by alternatives.  

Where Local Plans have reached examination, we understand that planning inspectors aim to continue to progress the pre and post-hearing stages of the examination. At the time of writing, Local Plan hearings are not currently able to take place, though the Planning Inspectorate is considering online alternatives.  

Neighbourhood Plans

Neighbourhood plan referendums that were due to take place between 16 March 2020 and 5 May 2021 have been postponed until after that period. Pre-referendum plans should, however, be given significant weight in decisions. 

Implications

There is widespread variation in local councils’ responses to delivering planning services as exemplified in their approach to delegation3 and the setting up of virtual planning committees.4 As mentioned, some councils are delegating more decision making to officers.

The introduction of virtual meetings has had mixed results. Without robust arrangements for meaningful participation of third parties in planning committee meetings, the public voice risks being sidelined. Reliable live streaming of meetings and support and advice for the public on how to participate are both essential. 

We believe that arrangements for public involvement must be in line with principles of access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental decision-making – which are enshrined in a UN Treaty known as the Aarhus Convention, signed by the UK.   

To safeguard local democracy and accountability, major decisions and those of a controversial nature should continue to be made by elected members, not officers. 

The pandemic also raises fundamental questions regarding the relevance of Local Plan targets (for example, governing how many new homes should be built) since the evidence on which these are based was drawn up in very different economic and demographic circumstances. This suggests the need for revision and review. 

A key area of concern is the housing delivery test. Under current planning rules, where housing delivery falls below target, a local authority risks losing an application that goes to appeal. It’s vital that councils are not penalised and their ability to manage development in their area curtailed as a result of the inevitable slowing of the housing market and fall in housing completions.  

To end on a more positive note, an appetite is emerging among the wider public for doing things differently.  If our current circumstances have anything to teach us, it is the need to give greater priority to people, nature and the environment, and to ensure local communities can continue to participate in decisions and plans that will affect their neighbourhood and the wider environment for years to come. 

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