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Coronavirus: further updates to planning system in England outlined

Out-Law News | 15 May 2020 | 11:11 am | 3 min. read

Further changes to parts of the planning system in England, including some much needed and awaited digitalisation to help address practical issues arising for local planning authorities during the coronavirus pandemic, has been announced by the UK government.

However, the changes made expire at the end of the year and fall short of the true digitalisation of the planning system that is needed, according to planning law experts at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.

The planning update published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) on Wednesday promised changes to regulations to "supplement the existing statutory publicity arrangements for planning applications, listed building consent applications and environmental statements for EIA [environmental impact assessment] development in response to the coronavirus".

According to that update, local planning authorities will be able to use social media and other electronic communications to publicise planning applications "if they cannot discharge the specific requirements for site notices, neighbour notifications or newspaper publicity".

However, Nicholle Kingsley and Sue Chadwick, both of Pinsent Masons, said the new regulations now published and in force as of 14 May do not go far enough.

"The regulations facilitate electronic submission of planning applications, publication of notices and digital versions of planning registers," Chadwick said. "Service can now be by email and much of the publication/notification processes of environmental statements can be electronic. These changes are welcome. The relaxation to the display of site notices and publication of environmental statements with the ability to make these available online rather than as physical copies will also be a relief for applicants."

However, as with all the changes, the government is still retrofitting a creaking system and the changes only last until the end of the year. For applicants making long term plans this potentially means planning for two kinds of engagement strategy when it comes to environmental statements. "Hopefully the long awaited and long overdue planning white paper will take us all into the digital age for good," said Chadwick.

Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for the MHCLG, addressed the topic of digitalisation of the planning system in a written statement issued on Wednesday. Jenrick said: "The effects of Covid-19 mean that it is not always possible to access public buildings. As a result, access to planning documents by making them physically available for inspection at local libraries, council offices etc, is now not available. During these exceptional circumstances, the government considers that online inspection of documents should be the default position across all planning regimes, and it is actively exploring all options to achieve this."

"The government recognises there are sections of the community with limited or no access to the internet and authorities and developers should take reasonable steps to ensure those without access are involved and consider alternative and creative ways to achieve this where possible. This could for example, include sending out documents by CD or USB stick where this meets the needs of those requesting such documents. As restrictions are eased, planning authorities and others should integrate the range of methods that are available to them into their approaches to ensure all sections of the community are reached as thoroughly as is practically possible," he said.

According to MHCLG, while the submission of planning applications online is being encouraged at this time, local planning authorities must also have arrangements in place "to ensure paper applications can still be validated".

While the update from government also mentions previous important amendments to enable virtual committee meetings and extensions to permitted development rights, Kingsley said that "what was noticeable by its absence was any reference to assisting developers and landowners with keeping their planning permissions alive during these difficult times".

The guidance, however, did cover plans to help ease cash-flow worries for developers through changes to the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). This is intended to help small and medium sized developers by introducing amendments to the CIL Regulations 2010 to enable charging authorities to defer payments, to temporarily dis-apply late payment interest and to provide a discretion to return interest already charged where they consider it appropriate to do so. The easements can be applied to developers with an annual turnover of less than £45 million but will be removed when the economic situation has recovered. These amendment regulations have not yet been published, but updated guidance to local authorities on CIL matters, which encourages local authorities to also consider deferral of planning obligation triggers such as financial contributions by completing a deed of variation, has been issued. 

"The deferral of CIL and section 106 obligations is welcome news and something that the industry has pushing for since the start of the pandemic," Kingsley said. "However, it is disappointing that the CIL provisions are only intended to apply to small and medium sized developers. This is an issue for all developers in these unprecedented times, whether large or small. The government should be looking to assist all development sites equally and there is much more the government can do to help if the intention is for the planning system and development to help the economy recover when we emerge from the crisis."