What started as an epidemic limited to China has now become a truly global pandemic. Its effects have been felt throughout many sectors including those impacted by planning law, and below we set out the main changes and issues relating to plan making that you should be aware of as of 29 June 2020. The situation is constantly changing, and we will aim to provide the most up-to-date information where possible.

Further advice regarding the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak on planning law, and how to prepare for any impact on your business, is offered by the Freeths Planning team. Please contact us should you wish to know more.

Planning Inspectorate Plan Making approach during the Coronavirus outbreak

Local plan examinations - Physical hearings are postponed. The Planning Inspectorate (“PI”) have said that Inspectors will continue to progress pre- and post-hearing stages, but there will inevitably be delays whilst physical hearings cannot be held. Given the number of participants, the legal right to appear before and be heard by the examiner, and the fact that local plan hearings are conducted as a structured conversation, technology may only be an option in a limited number of cases. The PI have noted that: “We request that Programme Officers, local authorities and all participants use their best endeavours to work with the Inspector to help progress examinations, collectively putting in place the practical measures needed to ensure fair participation. Ultimately, decisions about how to move examinations forward are at the discretion of the Inspector appointed to hold the independent examination.  It is also important for us all to appreciate that things may not always go smoothly and that progress may sometimes be delayed, despite collective best efforts.” On 26 June the PI announced that arrangements have been finalised for the South Oxfordshire Local Plan examination which will involve “several virtual events daily over a four-week period”. We would refer you to further details here. Central Bedfordshire, Chiltern and South Bucks, North Hertfordshire and Rutland are among the first Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) whose local plans face immediate delays due to the Coronavirus outbreak. A link to Rutland County Council's statement is here. The PI has previously confirmed that advisory visits to local planning authorities in connection with intended local plan submissions have also been undertaken remotely via video call, and we expect this is continuing. We would refer readers to the PI's 28 May update here for more information on this issue that the Government has identified as “a vital means for supporting economic recovery”.

Progressing Local Plans and reviewing and updating Statements of Community Involvement

On 13 May the Government acknowledged that progression of Local Plans is “a vital means for supporting economic recovery” and that they are working on ways to address challenges that LPAs may face. Please see our note on the PI's 28 May response above - we expect the Government will continue to press the PI on this issue.The Planning Practice Guidance on Statements of Community Involvement was also updated on 13 May to reflect the consequences of the Coronavirus outbreak on public engagement and the ability of LPAs to comply with policies set out in their Statements of Community Involvement. The new guidance sets out that:

  • LPAs are encouraged to carry out an “immediate review and update the policies where necessary so that plan-making can continue” where any existing policies cannot currently be complied with due to the Coronavirus outbreak;
  • Policies inconsistent with current Coronavirus guidance must be identified, for example holding face-to-face community consultation events or providing physical documents for inspection; and
  • necessary” temporary amendments should then be made to the inconsistent policies to allow plan progression whilst prompting “reasonably practicable” methods of effective community engagement.

The updated guidance strongly encourages LPAs to use online engagement methods “to their full potential” including virtual exhibitions, digital consultations, video conferencing, social media and providing documents for inspection on a public website. However, where people do not have internet access LPAs need to “consider alternative and creative ways to achieve” their involvement - suggestions include engaging sections of the community who do not have internet access through representative groups and allowing individuals to nominate someone to share views on their behalf. Consultation by telephone or in writing is now viewed as a last resort where it is feasible and alternatives cannot be identified. If an LPA has a pledge within their Statement of Community Involvement to consult on any changes, LPA may wish to take independent legal advice on how best to proceed.

Neighbourhood Planning Changes

New legislation has allowed all elections to be postponed in accordance with Government advice. On 7 April, a new paragraph 107 of the Planning Practice Guidance was published which gives further detail regarding Neighbourhood Planning: Referendums - All neighbourhood planning referendums that were meant to take place between 16 March 2020 and 5 May 2021 have been postponed until 6 May 2021.Decision-making - Where a Local Planning Authority has issued a decision statement detailing its intention to send a Neighbourhood Plan to a referendum, the plan can be given significant weight in decision-making so far as the Neighbourhood Plan is material to the planning application. Examinations - Neighbourhood Plan examinations should be dealt with by written representations (which is the standard approach) and if an oral representation is required, it should not be taken in person. Where possible, oral representations may take place through video conferencing or other technologies. Public consultation - Neighbourhood Plan groups or Local Planning Authorities wanting to undertake public consultations should consider the Government's guidelines on social distancing. The English Chief Planner's March update to LPAs explained that LPAs are able to make earlier claims for New Burdens grants at the point when the LPA issues a decision notice detailing its intention to send the plan to referendum rather than when the referendum date has been set. The Government's 13 May update acknowledges that they “will continue to explore whether further changes are needed”.

Our Planning team can help you navigate the impact of Coronavirus on planning law and your business. Contact Robert Bruce and Stephanie Gozney for planning-related legal enquiries and Paul Brailsford and Mark Harris for planning consultancy enquiries. This update was originally published on 8 April 2020 and was last updated on 29 June 2020.Whilst you are here, we would also recommend our additional Coronavirus planning updates:

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The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.