Covid-19 As A Material Consideration

The idea for this blog post started by way of a search we did this week for inspectors’ appeal decision letters that take into account the economic and other effects arising from the current pandemic.

There does not seem to have been any proper analysis on that at present (and this post doesn’t fill the gap!). Instead most people’s focus has been on the specific legislative measures that have been introduced by the Government and its narrow policy exhortations (for instance in relation to limited aspects of the CIL regime).

Before I turn to that appeals search, can I say two more things on the legislative changes.

First, a further round of amendments to the GPDO were laid before Parliament on 11 November (the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020). Aside from extending some temporary permitted development rights (outdoor markets; takeaway food operations from restaurants, cafes and drinking establishments, and some emergency development rights), there are two permanent amendments:

⁃ introduction from 6 April 2021 of a requirement that dwellings created by way of the operation of permitted development rights must meet the nationally described space standard

⁃ Prohibition on the demolition of any building is used, or was last used, for the purpose of a concert hall, venue for live music performance or theatre. (“This permanent change is to protect these venues, preventing their unnecessary loss as a result of having to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.” As a trustee of the Theatres Trust I am particularly pleased to see this now in legislation, following the initial ministerial statement on 14 July 2020).

Secondly, I covered the Rights: Community: Action judicial review of the previous recent GPDO and Use Classes Order changes in my 5 September 2020 blog post Lights Camera Action: The Planning Changes – Parliamentary Scrutiny, That JR. That claim was rejected by Lewis LJ and Holgate J last week in R (Rights: Community: Action) v Secretary of State (Divisional Court, 17 November 2020). There are plenty of other summaries of that judgment and there is nothing particularly novel about it but I was interested in the references to the evidence submitted by MHCLG as to the Covid-19 factors that led to the legislation being introduced in the form and way that it was, and the weight that was given to these matters in the judgment:

“Mr Simon Gallagher is the Director of Planning for MHCLG. In paragraph 10 of his witness statement he states that during the period January to March 2020 the first patients in the UK tested positive for Covid-19 and the first transmissions in the UK were confirmed. He says that the pandemic “has generated an economic emergency and upheaval of a scale and intensity not previously known in peacetime.” He continues by stating that, as a consequence, the Government has had to intervene urgently in the economy as a whole in unprecedented ways in order to avert or minimise potentially very severe and long term impacts on the lives of citizens and the prospects for future economic growth. Forecasts for economic growth were reduced substantially. Indeed, one key forecast made in summer 2020 predicted a reduction in the economy for 2020 of 9.9% (paragraph 13). Through regular discussion with representatives of the housing and construction sectors, the MHCLG became aware of particular difficulties faced by the construction sector as a result of the pandemic. There was a record monthly decline of 40.2% of construction output in April 2020. Whilst the output of that sector had increased in May, June and July, it was still 11.6% lower in July 2020 compared with February 2020 (paragraph 14).

On 20 July 2020 a submission was put to the Minister for Housing asking him to approve the three statutory instruments. The submission records that it had been decided that in order to support economic renewal and regeneration and to respond to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, additional PD rights for the redevelopment of vacant buildings for residential purposes and a broad Use Class of business, commercial and service uses would be introduced without consultation (paragraphs 2 to 3). The Minister’s attention was drawn to criticisms that the recently enacted PD right for allowing the addition of 2 storeys to blocks of flats lacked any requirement for the provision of affordable housing (paragraph 7). The submission referred to the same point when discussing the application of the PSED to the proposed statutory instruments (paragraph 10). The PSED assessments and impact assessments for each statutory instrument were provided to the Minister.

The Explanatory Memoranda for SI 2020 No. 755 and SI 2020 No. 756 stated that the new PD rights were being introduced to speed up the delivery of housing, reduce the need to develop on greenfield land and to support economic recovery from the pandemic by encouraging development. The Explanatory Memorandum for SI 2020 No. 757 stated that the UCO 1987 was being amended to better reflect the diversity of uses found on high streets and in town centres, to provide flexibility for businesses to adapt and diversify to meet changing demands and to help town centres recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.”

The judges had in part to consider whether the lack of a further consultation stage, which had been previously intended in relation to some of the measures, was justified:

“The explanatory memorandum for the draft SI 2020 No 755 and SI 2020 No. 757 again summarised briefly the degree of support for, and opposition to, the proposal, and the concerns that had been raised. The explanatory memorandum for the draft SI 2020 No 756 referred to the consultation responses and noted that there was to have been a further consultation but it had been decided to introduce the PD right without further consultation in order to support economic regeneration. It noted that the Government had considered the range of matters to be left to planning authorities for prior approval while maintaining a simplified planning system. In those circumstances it is not arguable that the defendant failed conscientiously to consider the consultation responses. The decision on whether to proceed, and if so what provisions to include in the SIs, in the light of the consultation responses and other relevant matters were questions for the defendant to determine.”

The judges, did not consider that the Government had acted unlawfully in not carrying out further consultation:

“First, the defendant has established that there were good reasons for departing from the promise in the present case and not having a second consultation on the proposals for PD rights for demolition of commercial or residential buildings and rebuilding for residential use. The coronavirus pandemic had led to severe economic difficulties including a reduction in the rate of construction and planning applications. The government decided to grant the PD rights in order to stimulate regeneration at a time of great economic difficulty arising out of the pandemic. That appears from the terms of the explanatory memorandum to SI 2020 No. 576.The matter is fully explained in the witness statement of Mr Gallagher who refers to the large-scale public health emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic which in turn generated an economic emergency and upheaval on a scale not previously known in peacetime. The Government had sought to intervene in the economy in unprecedented ways to minimise the very severe effects of the pandemic. In the light of that, the decision was taken in favour of urgent action rather than further consultation.

Secondly, the reasons are proportionate in the circumstances. On the one hand, the decision to depart from the promise deprived the public of the opportunity of making further representations on the proposed PD rights and deprived the Government of further, potentially helpful, input into the policy decision. On the other hand, the economic situation was grave. The grant of PD rights was intended to encourage developers to start the process of taking steps to carry out developments. That in turn would contribute to addressing the economic effects arising out of the pandemic. That was a proportionate course of action in the circumstances. It is correct that developments could not be begun until prior approval of certain matters had been obtained. But the aim was to stimulate the process of development in circumstances of economic urgency. It is correct that the PD rights would continue after the end of the current pandemic (unless amending legislation is enacted) but that does not render departure from the promise of further consultation disproportionate. It is correct that there was a proposal to create PD rights which involved further consultation. But circumstances had changed because of the pandemic. The reasons given for departing from the promise of further consultation were good and were proportionate.”

The economic situation is indeed “grave”!

So how are inspectors responding to it in their appeal decisions, and in the absence of any general guidance from Government which might for instance have advised decision makers to give additional weight to the interests of economic development and the provision of housing? JLL’s Asher Ross drew attention on LinkedIn last week to the Government’s publication on 18 November 2018 of the latest Planning Inspectorate Statistics. I haven’t delved into them yet but reproduce below a table that Asher posted, showing the reduced percentage of appeals that have been allowed over a period when I would have hoped to see exactly the opposite.

One trend that is apparent from the appeal decisions is in the context of enforcement appeals, where a longer period is frequently being given for compliance because of difficulties residents may have finding alternative accommodation due to the pandemic, although not always – in a recent decision in Ealing the inspector held that the nature of the “cramped and sub-standard living conditions“ was such as to outweigh that consideration (10 Torrington Gardens, 17 November 2020).

An appeal in relation to a proposed single dwelling in the countryside in Horsham District was dismissed in part because the inspector accepted the concerns of a nearby dog kennel business that the construction noise could affect the health of their dogs and indirectly affect the business economically if it had to close during this period, especially when considered in conjunction with the downturn in business they had generally suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic (The Mount, Ifield, Crawley, 27 July 2020).

An appeal in relation to five proposed flats in Cambridge was dismissed with the inspector noting that, although the appellant claimed that there was a need to promote economic growth as a result of the Covid -19 pandemic, this did not justify allowing harmful development (Mere Way, Cambridge, 1 October 2020).

An appeal to allow changes to proposed dwelling layouts in Eastbourne was allowed. Whilst the nationally described space standard was breached for a three bedroom home, the inspector placed weight on the need for a ”home office”, noting Covid-19 – a separate room was recognised as useful also for homework and hobbies, noting the “open plan” living room layout at present (land south of Langney shopping centre, 10 September 2020).

An appeal in relation to three proposed self build dwellings in Breckland was dismissed, with the inspector noting that there was little substantive evidence to demonstrate the longer term effects of Covid 19 on housing delivery rates or that that these developments would not be deliverable over the five year period , rather than just delayed (land to the north east of Fakenham Road, Beetley, 9 September 2020).

An appeal in relation to the proposed redevelopment as 27 residential apartments of the Flapper and Firkin music venue in Birmingham was dismissed. Whilst the venue had closed in January 2020 and therefore the minister’s July 2020 statement on preventing the loss of such venues was not directly relevant, the inspector concluded that the community harm arising from the loss of the venue outweighed the social and economic effects of the new homes (Flapper and Firkin, Kingston Row, Birmingham, 2 September 2020).

An appeal in relation to 216 proposed new homes in Wokingham district was rejected, with the inspector not accepting the appellant’s case that the assumed housing supply should be reduced by almost 500 dwellings due to the effects of the pandemic. He considered that the pandemic’s impact would be short-term and that five-year supply would recover (land east of Finchampstead Road, Wokingham, 25 August 2020).

An appeal in relation to a proposed staff car park in connection with a hotel in North Somerset was dismissed, the inspector considering that approval would not significantly contribute towards the economic recovery of the hotel business (Doubletree by Hilton Bristol South Cadbury House, 17 August 2020).

There are earlier appeal examples as well, but with equivalent themes and none that I could see were allowed with any weight given to Covid-19 considerations.

A proper analysis of the patterns emerging would be useful. For instance, how should the effects of the pandemic be taken into account in assessing whether there is five years’ supply of housing land? Is any Government advice required as to particular issues, such as live-work accommodation? Is any temporary advice required on enforcement issues, and on deadlines for compliance? Should Government for instance encourage a liberalised approach in relation to particular types of proposals, with shorter implementation deadlines for permissions approved in that way?

Simon Ricketts, 21 November 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Thank you to my Town colleague Lida Nguyen for the appeal searches, carried out via Compass Online.

Author: simonicity

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

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