The challenges of processing new planning applications during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for the planning system. Remote working and virtual technology is offering local planning authorities a way of dealing with many of the issues associated with processing existing applications. It has also helped to ensure that applications can continue to be determined.

The planning system is also already well prepared for submitting planning applications electronically via the Planning Portal, which has been up and running since 2003. It is, however, proving more difficult to find a ‘virtual solution’ to fulfilling the statutory neighbour notification requirements for new planning applications.

Local planning authorities have a degree of discretion over how they inform communities and other interested parties about planning applications.  With council offices now largely closed and most officers working from home, we are seeing the adoption of different approaches to dealing with the practicalities associated with putting up and displaying site notices, and notifying neighbours.

We are aware of one local planning authority effectively putting a temporary halt on processing applications received after 24th March 2020, citing that they are unable to commence public consultation – including the distribution of neighbour notification letters, displaying sites notices, and press advertisements. Helpfully, most authorities seem to be taking a more pragmatic approach than this and are continuing to validate new applications.

With regard to site notices, some authorities are enlisting the help of the applicant and/or agent by asking them to display the notice on or near the site themselves, and, where possible, provide photographic evidence of this.

It is important to note, however, that in accordance with the legal statutory requirements (as set out in Article 15 of the Development Management Procedure (England) Order 2015), a site notice is in fact only required for a select number of applications types, including:

·       EIA applications accompanied by an environmental statement;
·       Development that does not accord with the development plan in force in the area;
·       Development affecting a right of way;
·       For technical details consent (where not major development or development that falls under Article 15 (2).

For all other types of minor and major applications, there is no express requirement for the display of a site notice on or near the application site, although this is still at the discretion of the local authority.

Of course, the irony is that if an officer or applicant does manage to display a site notices during this lockdown period, will anyone actually see it?  This is where an amendment to existing regulations would be helpful to temporarily remove the need to physically display a site notice where this is not safe or practical.

At the moment, neighbour notification letters are perhaps a more effective way of making relevant parties aware of a new application. Some councils are continuing to notify neighbours of new applications by post or email where possible.  We are also aware that some authorities have chosen to extend the minimum neighbour consultation period to 28 days, as opposed to 21 days, and will take into consideration any comments made after this period up until determination.

Whilst any steps to keep the planning system moving during this difficult time are welcome, there is still a need for any new planning applications to meet minimum statutory publicity requirements to avoid the risk of legal challenge further down the line.  The RTPI has already called on the Government to issue urgent guidance on alternative arrangements for site notices, and we hope this will be forthcoming.   Guidance on public consultation more generally would also be helpful.

Until then, Firstplan is continuing to liaise with local authorities to understand their revised approaches to processing new applications and we will, of course, advise clients as necessary.  If you have a query on any of issues discussed here, please feel free to contact one of the Firstplan team.