On 24 March 2020, in his last letter to Planners as Chief Planner before he stepped down from the position on 31 March, Steve Quartermain encourages planners to be as pragmatic and proactive as possible and to make full use of the technology available to them to ensure that the best possible service is provided in the difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes extending time on the determination of applications if necessary.
With this advice in mind, developers, small and large, can seek to manage their proposals effectively with the assistance of the local authority officers. Alternatively, if the aim is to progress the proposal as quickly as possible and to get the permission in place, the message to local authorities is to attempt everything within their power to facilitate this, particularly where it involves major applications which are key to a local economy. It is unlikely, however, that many officers will be keen to exercise the discretionary delegation given to them to make a decision on the larger major applications where there is significant public interest or objection.
Local Authority Planning Decisions
As far as decision-making is concerned, the Coronavirus Act 2020 (which received royal assent on Wednesday 25 March 2020) includes powers for the government to make regulations to allow council meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period to 7 May 2021, to allow planning committees and other important council meetings to continue so that decisions can be made without the need for members to attend physically at meetings. Regulations have now been made (the snappily named, Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020) to allow members to ‘attend’ and participate remotely, which come into force on 4 April 2020.
The regulations stipulate that all members in remote attendance must be able to be heard and seen (where practicable) by all other members and members of the public. The regulations leave a few key matters for the individual local authority to make arrangements, for example, the recording of and taking of votes at meetings, access to documents, and the method by which the members and members of the public are to gain the remote access needed to attend (telephone/video/webcam/streaming). It is expected, therefore, that there may yet be a little delay while the local authorities put their own procedures in place.
On a quick scan of several local authority websites, most of them appear to be operating a ‘business as usual’ in-house planning service (or at least attempting to), save for decisions delegated to committee or where other intervening issues are beyond their control (e.g. planning appeals, examinations and inquiries, or judicial reviews). As most of us have recently discovered, working remotely has its own set of limitations and so there may be some delay to dealing with enquiries but the message that is being sent down is that they are doing all they can to offer an equivalent service.