Your planning application and Coronavirus

20 March 2020

Coronavirus and the measures taken to combat it are having some unexpected and unintended consequences in the strangest of ways.

Some, especially those selling food products to supermarkets or who have contracts with  hospitality and travel businesses and those dealing directly with the public, will be seeing a very immediate impact on demand for their products and services. For others the impacts are more subtle.

Whilst on site yesterday in relation to a planning issue, I met an Environmental Health Officer and a Planning Officer who declined to shake hands. This was the first sign of a change of approach. The planning officer, having come to talk about one application, took the opportunity to carry out a site inspection in relation to another – as he put it - “while I am still able to come out to have a look”.  

In the last few days I have also received a number of emails from planning and environmental consultancies saying that they are limiting the number and type of site inspections they are carrying out. This is bound to have an impact on how quickly applications can be made ready to submit and how quickly they can be processed.  In some councils, pre-application, site visits and other face-to-face meetings are being suspended. It may be that consultation deadlines will need to be pushed back so as to ensure that there has been a proper consultation. Whilst it is tempting for the applicant to try to push through without the consultation responses to avoid delay, that might lead to more delays in the long run, if a resulting decision is challenged in Judicial  Review, so patience may be needed. 

Add to all this the fact that many Councils are restricting or suspending committee and other meetings and the fact that planning officers and the staff of consultee bodies will be thin on the ground and it becomes very apparent that there will be some major delays in the planning system from now and – I suggest – for some time to come.  

The Planning Inspectorate has announced that it has postponed all local plan, appeal and nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) hearings and inquiries until further notice as part of its efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.  Unaccompanied site visits may still proceed using private transport and it is looking at technological solutions to enable appeals to go ahead. It has acknowledged, though, that is not straightforward. There is an obligation to be fair to all parties and not everyone has equal access to or ability to use, technology. There has been discussion about possible alternative procedures but as yet no official solution has been identified. If you have an inquiry or hearing soon, you can expect it to be postponed. This will do nothing to help with the already significant backlog at the Inspectorate and will delay many substantial projects at the stage where money has been spent but no income is being generated. 

There will be a silver lining for some as this is likely to mean a delay in the determination of enforcement appeals and unless there is a stop notice in place that will allow development to be retained for longer pending the outcome.

Closer to home,  it is uncertain whether planning committee meetings across the country will be able to continue, not least due to the age profile of many committee members making them particularly vulnerable to the virus. By law, planning authorities only need three committee members to attend to make a decision, but in England it is not legal for members to attend remotely. Councils will need to ensure that as many decisions as possible have been delegated whilst ensuring the quality and legality of decision making. It is possible that for some a delegated decision will be preferable, especially where technical issues are involved.

In relation to exiting decisions the government has instructed planning authorities in England to avoid enforcing controls that “unnecessarily” restrict the time and number of lorry deliveries to retailers and distributors of food and other essential deliveries during coronavirus. Setting aside that “unnecessary” restrictions should not have been imposed on planning permission in the first place, this may have a knock on effect for food producers who are subject to hours restrictions. There may be a helpful relaxation of restrictions, for example, on collection times of poultry from broiler units.  This is likely to involve a relaxation of enforcement rather than a change to the conditions or the terms of any s106 agreements and to be a temporary measure.

It is a constantly changing situation and those engaged with the planning system at the moment will need to monitor it and to respond as best they can. It does seem likely, though, that there will be delays and difficulties in the months ahead. 

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at March 2020.