What To Do?

When, as it will, this current terrible phase of the Covid-19 pandemic passes, what needs to be done to ensure that we catch up on efforts to provide housing and resume economic activity?

The main purpose of this blog post, into which a number of my partners at Town have contributed their thoughts (although all errors and omissions are mine), is to try to answer that question.

But first, what is presently being done to make sure that our system continues to operate, efficiently but fairly?

It is encouraging to see the great efforts being made by many local planning authorities to keep going with decision making, by way of innovative approaches to decision making and greater use of officers’ delegated powers, and the commitment of so many officers and members, continuing to work from home against a background of other domestic pressures and technological constraints. It will be excellent to see proactive moves by authorities to amend their constitutions, with necessary safeguards such as chief executive oversight, where there are specific rules against certain categories of application being dealt with other than by committee. Some of the options are set out in a piece by barrister Jonathan Easton, Local authority decision making in a time of crises, 19 March 2020. The Government has also confirmed that it “will consider bringing forward legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period” (Robert Jenrick reaffirms support for councils in their coronavirus response, MHCLG press release, 16 March 2020); the Association of Democratic Services Officers and Lawyers in Local Government wrote jointly to the Secretary of State on 17 March 2020 setting out the full extent of changes that would be needed for local government decision making to function properly during this period of social distancing. The quicker the better please!

It is frustrating after the resounding success of the Rosewell reforms to see planning appeal inquiries, as well as informal hearings and local plan examinations, postponed as a result of the virus (see Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Planning Inspectorate guidance – updated 18 March 2020) – but of course the reason is plain. So far the postponements only relate to those scheduled up to 23 April but surely this will roll forward in due course. The Bar has made much of discussions with the Planning Inspectorate for greater use of video conferencing – which is the stock in trade for all of us at the moment – microsoft teams, zoom, you name it, we’re all on it! But keeping the professionals communicating with the inspector in a structured way is one thing – what about the “public” element of a public inquiry? [subsequent addition to blog post: see this subsequent excellent Landmark Chambers paper Fairness and public participation in video or telephone hearings for planning appeals during the COVID-19 crisis]. For all but the most controversial or complex appeals (so perhaps not those which have been recovered by the Secretary of State), should appellants be given the option of having their appeals determined by written representations, even if until now the appeal has been identified as appropriate for a hearing or inquiry?

The courts have also been quick to consider how to respond. An update from the Lord Chief Justice on 17 March 2020 spoke of the “urgent need to increase the use of telephone and video technology immediately to hold remote hearings where possible”, the “considerable flexibility” provided for in the Civil Procedure Rules and the courts’ “immediate aim is to maintain a service to the public, ensure as many hearings in all jurisdictions can proceed and continue to deal with all urgent matters”. Indeed, colleagues had an early taste of this on 19 March, with Deputy High Court Judge Alice Robinson handing down judgment from open court in a section 288 challenge (following a hearing earlier in the week), with the advocates and parties at the other end of the telephone. Clause 53 and Schedule 24 of the Coronavirus Bill (introduced into the House of Commons on 19 March 2020) proposes greater flexibility in relation to the use of live video and audio links, with appropriate protections, for a temporary period of two years (whoch period may be shortened or extended). I also recommend this excellent piece, Tim Buley QC shares his thoughts on the Public law courts during the coronavirus crisis, which pulls together much of what is currently being done, or contemplated.

Some ideas, looking ahead

Just a week or so ago seems like an age away. The Secretary of State set out a range of proposals for further reform of the planning system in his Planning for the future document (12 March 2020). He announced:

In the Spring, we will publish a bold and ambitious Planning White Paper. It will propose measures to accelerate planning. It will maximise the potential of new technologies to modernise the system. It will make it easier for communities to understand the planning system and play a role in decisions that affect them. Together, the measures it puts forward will set out a pathway to a new English planning system which is fit for the future”.

That talk of a “new English planning system” seemed to herald some of the thinking from the Policy Exchange’s paper Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century (27 January 2020) and, after all, its co-author Jack Airey is now a 10 Downing Street advisor. I wrote a critique of the paper in the Estates Gazette (Let’s rethink the rethink, 5 March 2020) but perhaps I was being a little premature. Because maybe, once all this subsides, it is time to look at for instance:

⁃ the potential for more of a zoning-style approach, which could begin to be introduced fairly simply by placing a proper duty on authorities to prepare brownfield land registers (as well as making it mandatory for local authorities to import into their registers all sites identified by the Government in its promised national brownfield sites map) and then increasing the scope for use of the ‘permission in principle’ procedure e.g. by allowing it to be used for more than just housing-led development and allowing permission in principle to be established through site allocations in a local plan.

⁃ greater use, this time with better safeguards against abuse, of permitted development rights. After all, setting aside the problems caused by that lack of appropriate safeguards, since the permitted development right to convert offices to residential was initially introduced for a temporary three year period from May 2013 (following an initial announcement in the March 2011 budget), many thousands of new homes have been created at much greater speed than traditional planning application routes would have achieved. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Planning For The Future announces that the Government will introduce “new permitted development rights for building upwards on existing buildings by summer 2020, including to extend residential blocks by up to two storeys and to deliver new and bigger homes. We will also consult on the detail of a new permitted development right to allow vacant commercial buildings, industrial buildings and residential blocks to be demolished and replaced with well-designed new residential units which meet natural light standards.” Devil’s question: if we are to have permitted development rights to demolish and rebuild, why not go further and have permitted rights, with equivalent safeguards, to carry out residential development on already cleared brownfield land (as an alternative to the enhanced brownfield land register/permission in principle proposal above)?

Surely, all these ideas will need to be considered, against the backdrop of months of lost housing delivery and a severe knock to economic confidence.

But I would suggest that, ahead of that promised White Paper, which will surely now slip considerably, there are a number of shorter-term measures to make adjustments in order to make up for the time that has been lost as a result of this crisis. In considering these, I recognise the inevitable tension between on the one hand measures that seek to “put on hold” aspects of our system, particularly time limits, and on the other hand measures to keep the system moving.

We need to learn from recent history. In the wake of the global financial crisis, on 1 October 2009 the Government introduced a temporary measure “to make it easier for developers and local planning authorities to keep planning permissions alive for longer during the economic downturn so that they can more quickly be implemented when economic conditions improve.” Guidance as to the operation of the provisions was set out in Greater flexibility for planning permissions (23 November 2009, amended 1 October 2010 and eventually withdrawn 7 March 2014). (The same document gave guidance as to the operation of the helpful section 96A non-material amendments procedure, introduced at the same time.)

We urgently need an equivalent measure reintroduced or, perhaps more simply, an automatic six months’ extension to all planning permission time limit conditions. After all there is already a year’s automatic extension under section 91 (3A) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 where a planning permission is subject to judicial review proceedings. The thinking should extend to other fixed deadlines, for instance in relation to the implementation of compulsory purchase orders and NSIPs.

There are various section 106 obligations which provide for ongoing financial contributions or measures with significant ongoing costs, not linked to progress with stages of development. The Government should surely provide firm guidance to authorities that they must readily agree to the renegotiation of such provisions to take into account the current standstill period if the evidence is, for any specific development, that this is necessary and justified.

In London, there is a particular issue with the early stage viability review mechanism required by the Mayor. The review is triggered if “substantial implementation” (usually development above ground floor level) has not happened within two years of planning permission being issued. Surely we should be avoiding the unnecessary bureaucracy inherent in that process where we can and for most major schemes the 24 months’ deadline is challenging even with a fully deployed design and construction team. Again, boroughs and the Mayor should surely be urged to agree to vary such arrangements so as to allow for an appropriate extension, whether it turns out to be three months, six months, or longer. Flexibility is also urgently needed with agreements that are currently being negotiated and we have been considering various potential drafting options so as to secure that outcome.

Publicity and consultation arrangements for planning applications need to be adapted to fit this world of social distancing and self-isolation: much of this can occur anyway through innovative use social media and other online consultation tools but there should be a temporary lifting of legislative requirements which will currently serve little purpose and may prove difficult to fulfil, such as the deposit of physical copies of Environmental Statements in the community (under Regulation 23 of the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017) and the erection of site notices under Article 15 of the Development Management Procedure Order.

Any such proposal would need underwriting from the Government but, as part of any planned economic bounce-back, should there be a year’s window within which schemes can commence free from CIL or with a significant deferment of payments (subject to clawback unless the chargeable development is completed within a specified number of years)? Should the three years period for the “in use” exemption be extended (surely the answer is yes)?

Given the disruption and in some cases the reduction in the capability of local authorities to determine planning applications and in light of the current postponement of hearings and inquiries by PINS there must also be a case for easing the burden on the current system and deferring costs for applicants and would-be appellants by introducing a temporary extension of the statutory period for determination of planning applications and the time limit for appealing against refusal or deemed refusal of planning permission under Articles 34 and 37 of the Development Management Procedure Order.

There will surely need to be adjustments to the operation of the housing delivery test so as not to unfairly penalise authorities facing, for no fault of their own, a slow down in housing starts.

Some have called for the Government to suspend litigation deadlines and limitation periods for the duration of the crisis. It is difficult to see how an across the board standstill would not cause substantial injustices, but should the usual judicial review and statutory challenge periods be extended in relation to decisions taken after a specified date, or perhaps for a temporary period to extend the deadline to three months?

Finally, taking into account the consequences of its social distancing measures, the Government has already announced on 17 March 2020 that permitted development rights will be extended for a period of 12 months to allow the temporary change of use of pubs, bars and restaurants to hot-food take aways; one can readily see that further temporary extensions of permitted development rights might be necessary – e.g. change of use of offices, industrial buildings or warehouses to use for the sale of food and other convenience goods and change of use of hotels and hostels to hospitals or healthcare centres. Planning law will need to be nimble.

It’s times like these we learn to live again.

Simon Ricketts, 21 March 2020

Personal views, et cetera

With thanks to my partners and colleagues at Town. If any of these ideas chime with other organisations’ thoughts, please speak to any of us.

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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