Business Clinic: How is coronavirus affecting planning?

Whether you have a legal, tax, insurance, management or land issue, Farmers Weekly’s Business Clinic experts can help. Alex Madden, head of planning at law firm Thrings, explains how the planning system is adapting and continuing while the coronavirus pandemic persists.

Q. We have submitted a planning application for the change of use of two agricultural barns that are due for a decision.

We haven’t received any updates from the local planning authority and are concerned our application has simply been put on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic.

What is the current situation with the planning system and what, if anything, can we do to progress our application? Can we simply proceed with the building work?

The UK planning system has responded and adapted well to the Covid-19 pandemic and the task of maintaining decision-making under the lockdown.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (MHCLG) strategy has been clear: local authorities should continue to determine applications, under the existing timescales, by using technology and delegation.

The government has introduced temporary measures to relax planning rules and processes to ensure the system can operate effectively during this period.

See also: What to do when staff do not follow coronavirus advice

Its most recent changes included measures to allow councils in England to publicise planning applications through social media, to consult on local plan matters, and to afford developers more flexibility to defer payments towards local infrastructure.

The MHCLG currently has no plans to change the determination timescales as set out in the Development Management Procedure Order 2015 (which requires most applications to be determined within eight weeks of submission).

Likewise, the MHCLG has recently urged local authorities to hold planning committee meetings virtually rather than to postpone meetings.

From our own experiences, local authorities have been quick to adapt. However, in practice, the timescales for determination are not always met. During the pandemic, there will undoubtedly be delays, varying from council to council.

So, what are the options to progress your application during Covid-19?

As a first step, check your local planning authority’s website for any updates on procedural changes or news on your application.

If your application has passed its determination date and you have not received any update, it would be sensible to contact the allocated planning officer, either by email or telephone, and have a discussion.

This may present an opportunity for you or your agent to ascertain if there are any outstanding issues that need to be addressed. A personal touch can often hit the right note which may, in turn, assist in your application being determined.

Local authorities are usually keen to be open and transparent about delays and should provide you with a reasonably accurate timeframe for a determination to be made.

If you have trouble contacting your planning officer, it may be worth speaking to the head of development control about whether your case has been allocated to another officer.

If you are unable to obtain a satisfactory response from the planning officer, or the urgency of determination means you cannot wait, you have the option of appealing to the secretary of state on the grounds that the application has not be determined within the prescribed timeframe (unless you have agreed in writing to an extension).

But remember that each case will turn on its own merits, so speaking to a planning specialist before embarking on an appeal is advisable.

The procedure for such an appeal is similar to that when appealing a refused application.

The local authority will be asked to explain why the application was not determined within the specified time and what its decision would have been if it had determined the application.

The risk in making a start on the building work is that such operations may be unauthorised and could lead to a visit from the enforcement officer, as well as jeopardising the pending application.

It is not clear whether you have a class Q prior approval application in for determination with the council or a routine planning application.

If the former, the commencement of any works at this stage could be fatal for the application, as you would be jumping the gun by not first seeking the council’s consent.

However, if you now find yourself in a situation where the 56-day period for determination has lapsed (and there have been no requests for an extension of time), you may have a deemed consent provided you satisfy the qualifying criteria.

You should seek specialist planning advice at this stage, since there are number of options available to you.   

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