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RTPI welcomes MHCLG guidance but is perturbed by permission expiration not being addressed

Words: Laura Edgar
Discuss / iStock-646884988

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (MHCLG) latest planning measures to keep the English system moving during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic have been welcomed by the RTPI, but the institute remains concerned that expiring planning permissions have not been addressed.

Yesterday (13 May), The Planner reported that housing secretary Robert Jenrick had published guidance for the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), consultation for planning applications, local plans and neighbourhood plans.

Victoria Hills, chief executive of the RTPI, said the measures were “positive and pragmatic” but she wants to see MHCLG issue guidance on site visits as well address the need for extended planning permissions.

“An RTPI survey conducted at the beginning of lockdown revealed that the majority of our members were overwhelmingly concerned with ensuring planning continues to deliver during the pandemic, with the majority supporting the use of digital hearings, inquiries and local review bodies and plan examinations. So, on that basis, we welcome the government’s latest announcements, which will ensure this.

“However, we remain concerned that the issue of planning permissions due to expire during the lockdown has not yet been addressed. We have repeatedly called for this to be urgently addressed and repeat that call now. Our members have also said they require further guidance on site visits.”

Hills added that she wants to see a “sensible approach” to dealing with determinations timescales, given the government said these would not be changed. The approach should avoid “unfairly penalising” local planning authorities that are working under “extremely challenging circumstances”.

“Harsh penalties at this time would seem counterproductive,” she said.

Jenrick also announced several measures to get England building following a period of lockdown and inactivity on construction sites. 

Builders will be able to agree more flexible working hours with local councils. This includes staggering worker arrival times to ease pressure on public transport.

CIL measures a ‘relief’

At the beginning of April, The National Federation of Builders (NFB) called on the government to suspend CIL collection, so the measures that will see the levy “deferred, late payments disapplied and interest returned will come as welcome relief to the housebuilders we represent. The industry continues to face a cash-flow crisis so this change will help businesses to keep going”.

However, like the RTPI, the federation wants expiring planning permissions to be addressed.

Head of policy James M Butcher, said: “The Covid-19 crisis has significantly delayed works taking place and works starting on site. Although housebuilders are now being encouraged to go back to work, it is inevitable that delays will continue as we adjust to new ways of safe working and permissions are at risk of lapsing. This will cause an unnecessary delay, as developers have to reapply for planning permission, impacting our recovery. The government should act to extend all planning permissions by a year, to remove unnecessary additional bureaucracy.”

Digitisation could see greater transparency

The Federation of Master Builders’ (FMB) chief executive Brian Berry welcomed a safe return to work for construction sector and is “pleased to see that local authorities are being encouraged to take a more flexible approach to CIL payments as housebuilders have been struggling with cash flow and need support to continue building".

“Speeding up the planning system will be welcome news for many smaller housebuilders who struggle to negotiate what has typically been an unwieldy process. I hope that digitisation will mean greater access and transparency in planning decisions for all those involved. We must move towards a market which helps small builders bring forward quality local homes of all types, for local people.”

Increased flexibility on publicity gets thumbs up

David Renard, housing spokesman for the Local Government Association (LGA), said: “It is good that government has brought forward measures to ensure that planning departments can continue to operate effectively within current public health guidelines.

“We are pleased it has also acted on our calls by increasing flexibility on publicity requirements for planning applications and providing a clear steer to the Planning Inspectorate to make greater use of virtual technology and written submissions so that councils can quickly get local plans in place to support economic recovery.

“Flexibility on construction site working hours needs to be negotiated on a site-by-site basis with councils so that they can consider the impact on local residents, many of whom will be at home all day, including for work purposes, due to current coronavirus measures.”

However, Renard thinks the government should go further by allowing councils at least five years to spend right-to-buy receipts to avoid the coronavirus crisis exacerbating the current shortage of social housing. 

“Councils also need to be able to keep 100 per cent of receipts, set discounts locally and increase the proportion of receipts that can be used to meet the cost of replacement homes.

“This is critical if we are to get building again as we begin the national recovery.”


Reservations about community involvement

Civic Voice's Sarah James, policy and membership development, told The Planner: "Overall in Civic Voice's view, these are pragmatic, temporary, but understandable changes to allow decision making to continue, however we do have reservations about the issue that some Statements of Community Involvement (SCI) may be updated without 'involving the community'. 

"As an absolute minimum, where a council is updating an SCI, we call on them to work with their local civic society. Civic societies are often described as 'community connectors' and after local government, they are the most numerous participants in the planning system. By engaging the local civic society to review/update SCIs, we can ensure community engagement can continue at these challenging times with the input of the local community. Civic societies can support councils in delivering an effective planning system, so let's work together."

Turnover not a good measure of company size

“The issues that CIL payments and planning obligations cause for stalled sites has been heavily discussed of late. The guidance makes it clear that MHCLG is not intending to bring in the blanket reforms that we have been lobbying for, but instead is looking at a more targeted, temporary, measure aimed at smaller development companies with a turnover of less than £45 million a year,” explained Nicola Gooch, planning partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell.

“We will need to see the legislation to see how this to be interpreted, but planning measures expressly aimed at supporting small to medium-sized housebuilders are not new – supporting SMEs was the sole purpose behind bringing in the small sites exemption for affordable housing after all. It will be interesting whether the decision to limit the relief to developers with an annual turnover of less than £45 million will survive parliamentary debate – and how this turnover figure is to be calculated. At the moment, the difference between being over or under the threshold could be one good year, so it is likely than an average figure taken over a specified period of time will be adopted. In any event, turnover is not a particularly good measure of size or success: there is a stark difference between revenue and profit. It is perfectly possible to have a very healthy turnover and still run into cash flow issues.”

Clearing pre-commencement conditions an issue

Claire Dutch, partner and co-head of planning and environment at law firm Ashurst, said: “MHCLG has responded positively to lobbying from the development industry. Today's raft of helpful measures is welcomed. In current times, cash flow is key and smaller developers will breathe a sigh of relief at the announcement that CIL payments will be deferred. However, many of the larger developers are facing CIL bills that run into tens of millions and will be disappointed that the relief will not apply to them.

“An obvious omission is the lack of an extension to the period for developers to implement their planning permissions. Developers do not want to lose their hard-fought permissions. Getting pre-commencement planning conditions cleared and getting on site in the current climate is a real issue. The industry has proposed a number of fixes to this problem and the government still needs to respond to this.”

Lower productivity

Ian Fletcher, director of real estate policy at the British Property Federation (BPF), noted that some construction work has continue during lockdown, in line with social distancing guidelines but “the sector is experiencing far lower productivity than normal”. 

“Agreeing changes to working hours during extended daylight will help the sector cope better with increasing productivity and keeping employees safe, and this will protect more jobs. We hope the public will be understanding of the need to do this and that those managing construction sites will work with local councils to make responsible use of this flexibility.”

Speaking about planning notices, Fletcher added: “This helps to provide clarity on one of the issues that helps oil the wheels of the planning system – giving notice to the local community that applications have been made. Over the past few weeks applicants and local councils have improvised, but that is not ideal and allowing the use of social media will give comfort to applicants and council staff that the right thing is being done.”

Positive steps

Andrew Taylor, director of planning at Countryside Properties told The Planner that the measures are a positive step. He is, however, concerned that the statutory consultation elements are now to be determined by each individual local planning authority, “potentially creating disparity of engagement between council areas”. 

“We need to ensure consistency and a robust approach.”

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