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The planning system, like most other sectors, is currently experiencing extreme disruption due to the impact of the Coronavirus, but Government and stakeholders are considering innovative solutions to overcome the challenges thrown up as a result.

Among the measures already implemented by the Government under the Coronavirus emergency legislation are:

  • Planning regulations in England relaxed so that pubs and restaurants can operate as hot food takeaways following a temporary change to permitted development rights.
  • Planning committee meetings contrary to previously applicable legislation allowed to be held for example via video conferencing technology while travel and assembly restrictions are in place.
  • An extension of the time limits applying to the neighbourhood plan process together with more use of written representations. Where, however, it is considered by examiners that oral representations are necessary, these can be taken using video conferencing or other suitable technologies.

Parallel with this stakeholder actions include the following:

  • The Planning Inspectorate has announced postponement of all local plan and appeal hearings and inquiries until further notice. It has, however, accepted that there is no legal impediment to continuing with those processes where appropriate via video-conferencing technology together with more use of written representations.
  • A written ministerial statement recommending that planning authorities apply pragmatism to the enforcement of food delivery restrictions.
  • Local authority planning teams working from home, communicating by video conferencing, and arranging for site visits to be replaced by submission of digital evidence such as photos.
  • Planning consultants/agents offering alternatives such as email newsletters and virtual online exhibitions to replace face-to-face consultation on applications with residents.
  • Local authorities amending or re-interpreting their Constitutions to allow more planning application decisions to be made by an officer under delegated powers where formerly these would have been determined in Planning Committee.

One area that still needs to be addressed by the Government at the time of writing is that due to the restrictions put in place difficulties may arise in developers discharging pre-commencement planning conditions, obtaining reserved matters approvals or commencing development within time limit conditions. This raises the possibility that, in the absence of compliance with specific planning permission requirements, those permissions will not be lawfully implemented in time to stop them expiring.

The Scottish Government has already introduced legislation in this respect, and it is expected that the Westminster Government will also do so shortly due to the very real potential adverse impacts arising in a slow moving economy, which looks likely in the immediate future.

From an overall point of view for aspects such as extension of time for implementing planning permission and the economic impact on development projects caused by a slowdown in the economy, there is fairly recent precedent in the body of short term legislation brought in following the 2008/2009 financial crisis. That at least allows a framework for further necessary legislation to be enacted quickly.

All these measures are based of course on the assumption that they will be as temporary as possible, but how “temporary” is temporary is clearly impossible to predict at this point.

Kevin Breslin | Planning Solicitor | 360 Law Services

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