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MHCLG updates Covid-19 guidance for planning in England

Words: Laura Edgar

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has issued updated guidance to ensure that the planning system in England can ‘play its full part’ in the national and local economic recovery to come after the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

The advice follows stakeholder feedback the ministry has received since the last chief planner’s newsletter, published on 23 March.

Current public health guidelines have had a “profound impact” on how local planning authorities operate, the ministry acknowledged.

“We understand the pressure that authorities are under, and the importance of practical measures which can ease the impact as well as support the wider efforts to keep the country running. It is important to keep the planning system moving as much as we can, so that it is able to play its full part in the economic recovery to come, at both national and local levels.”

Alongside measures for construction and housebuilding, also published today (13 May), the government wants site visits and the use of digital technology and virtual meetings to become the norm in planning casework. 

A range of temporary measures are being introduced, explained the ministry, to make it easier for the planning system, and the development management system in particular, to operate within public health guidelines.

Changes to planning guidance include:

Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL): 

The ministry intends to introduce amendments to the Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations 2010 to help small and medium-sized developers. Charging authorities will be able to defer payments, temporarily disapply late payment interest and to provide a discretion to return interest already charged where they consider it appropriate to do so. 

This measure can be applied to developers with an annual turnover of less than £45 million. It will be removed when the economic situation has recovered.

More information here.

Determination timescales

MHCLG explains that determination timescales for planning applications will not be changed, although it acknowledges that not all timescales will be met.

Developers are encouraged to agree extensions of time where necessary but retaining the timescales means that appeals can be submitted to the secretary of state on the grounds of non-determination.

Publicity and consultation for planning applications

On Thursday 14 May, temporary regulations to supplement the existing statutory publicity arrangements for planning applications, listed building consent applications and environmental statements for EIA development will be introduced.

MHCLG said this will mean that local planning authorities will have the flexibility to take other “reasonable” steps to publicise applications if the specific requirements for site notices, neighbour notifications or newspaper publicity cannot be discharged. Steps can include social media and other electronic communications, but they must be proportionate to the size of the development.

Guidance on these regulations would be published, said the government.

Virtual planning committees

The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020, which came into force on 2 April, allow English local authorities to hold public meetings virtually, by phone or video link, during the pandemic.

So that decisions continue to be made, MHCLG has urged local planning authorities to take advantage of the powers rather than deferring committee dates. “Urgency powers” that give senior officers delegated authority to make decisions should be considered.

The ministry is working with the Planning Advisory Service to provide online guidance and web-based training for local authorities on how to manage planning committees and continue decision-making. 

Guidance can be found on the Planning Advisory Service website.

Local plans

Local plans should still be progressing through the system as they will support the economic recovery from the pandemic and to meet the 2023 deadline by which all local authorities should have a plan in place.

“We recognise the challenges that some local authorities may face, and are working on ways to address this, from temporarily relaxing requirements on community engagement and the need for physical documents, to engaging with the Planning Inspectorate on the use of virtual hearings and written submissions.”

Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) on plan-making has been updated to explain how local authorities can review and update their Statements of Community Involvement and should be read in parallel with existing guidance on plan-making, including paragraphs 34, 35 and 71. If there is any conflict, this guidance supersedes current plan-making guidance until further notice.

More information on paragraph 76 here.

Neighbourhood plans

Regulations implemented as a result of the Coronavirus Act 2020 mean that elections and referendums cannot take place until 6 May 2021. This is being kept under review and may be amended or stopped if circumstances change.

Guidance has been set out so that neighbourhood plans awaiting referendums can be given “significant weight” in decision-making. 

Regarding public consultation, which under the Neighbourhood Planning (General) Regulations 2012 does not mean this necessarily has to be face to face, to demonstrate that all groups in the community have been sufficiently engaged – such as with those without internet access – more targeted methods may be needed including by telephone or in writing. 

Local planning authorities may be able to advise neighbourhood planning groups on suitable methods and how to reach certain groups in the community.

More on this can be read here.

Compulsory purchase

The government wants the compulsory purchase order (CPO) process to continue, although it acknowledges that several requirements, such as access to public documents, mean that this is challenging to do while following public health guidelines.

Guidance has been issued to help acquiring authorities on specific matters.

Validation of applications

Many local authorities are already receiving planning applications online but the government says it is important that arrangements are in place to ensure that paper applications can still be validated.

Priority should continue to be given to the validation of any urgent Covid-19-related applications for planning permission and associated consents, including hazardous substance consents.

New time-limited permitted development rights

This right came into effect on 9 April and will end on 31 December this year. The right allows “local authorities and health service bodies to carry out development, both works and change of use, of facilities required in undertaking their roles to respond to the spread of coronavirus, without a requirement to submit a planning application”.

More detail can be found on the UK Government website.


Read more:

Environmental Impact Assessment (updated 13/5/2020)

Consultation and pre-decision matters (updated 13/5/2020)



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