A set of helpful resources for planners thinking about how to change services in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

*Updates will be tweeted by @pas_team

The basics

This situation is changing rapidly, and we have begun assembling some thoughts and resources to share good practice and common questions. Many people are contacting MHCLG with questions and seeking advice - they are unable to respond individually but have an issues log and are working out solutions. 

The LGA is maintaining a list of COVID-19 resources for local government, including advice specifically for councillors and shortly how the new regulations regarding remote committees will work. 

The KHub is our open forum for asking questions and seeking advice. If you have questions that are not on this page please feel free to raise them in a new thread or in a reply. At times like these there are no stupid questions.  

We will be sending out a bulletin shortly, and might send them out more frequently while there is so much going on. Sign up here

FAQ: Planners and planning departments

Q - Are planners "key workers"?

A - As with all Local Government (LG) and school workers they CAN be, it’s up to the employer.  A planner could be redeployed to work on COVID19 issues for example which is why the LG definition is broad.

Q - Could planners be redeployed on to more urgent services?

A - Councils are large responsible organisations and will have corporate business continuity plans and emergency responses. It is for them to decide how to flexibly deploy their employees and other resources to meet the greatest need. 

FAQ: Local Plans and monitoring

Q - We’re out for consultation on our plan – how do we deal with responses?

A - You could extend the consultation response period to give people more time. Consider options for dealing with hard copy correspondence (e.g. mail re-routing?) and (re)deploying your team at set times to deal with emails – this may mean changing access rights e.g. to 'admin' email addresses. Consider other options e.g. setting up an online forum where people can submit questions.

Q - What should we do if we’re about to go out for consultation / plan to go out in the next 6 months?

A - Check your SCI, can you achieve everything it sets out to do? Can you update the SCI (see FAQ below) to reflect how you now intend to undertake your consultation?  If not already agreed, you may need a different approach/route internally to get the ‘ok’ to consult - e.g. if you normally achieve this through a committee or council decision. 

This is also be an opportunity to think differently about how you consult and how you use the online and virtual tools you have access to promote your consultation and allow people to get involved.

Q - What should I do if my consultation has just ended?

A - With office closures happening, it’s worth a double check that all responses are accounted for especially any postal/hard copy responses. Continue to record, summarise, categorise etc. the representations received. 

Consider the opportunities that the current situation may present. Could you engage the wider planning team (if not redeployed) to: get additional input into and help fully consider responses; propose changes or areas for next steps; feedback to and engage with councillors differently and in different ways.

Q- What should I do if my plan is ready for submission?

A - If you are ready to and able to submit you can do so. Although no plan hearings are being scheduled, you can still submit. Remember MHCLG want everything to continue as far as possible.

Q - What should I do if my plan is at examination?

A - In the first instance contact your Programme Officer (if you have appointed one). The Planning Inspectorate are encouraging all correspondence from their Inspectors to councils to be through them. Your Programme Officer should provide updates from the Inspectorate.

Importantly, put any information / updates about local plan examinations on your website and ask that any questions the public or participants have should be via the Programme Officer.

Q - How can we comply with our SCI?

A - Certain SCI commitments will no longer be possible e.g. providing hard copies of documents in public locations (e.g. council offices and libraries) or holding face-to-face community consultation events.

Check your SCI - what elements are no longer be possible? What does it say about future updates? Does it commit to a public consultation as part of any review?

Check what delegation is in place for the Covid 19 emergency.  Can an SCI update be done quickly under delegated powers? In the meantime, update the SCI front sheet and/or use your website to publicise what is no longer possible and alternatives you are considering (e.g. web-based comms/social media). The most important thing is to be clear and transparent on the immediate measures taken, and that longer term measures will follow.  No-one expects you to have all the answers now but it is important to keep everyone in the picture.

Q - Can we withdraw the consultation on our local plan?

A - Avoid withdrawing plans that are currently out for consultation. Instead extend the consultation period (e.g. initially to July 2020). Review your SCI (see previous FAQ).

Q - Can we change the timetable of our plan without formally changing our LDS?

A - Use your website to make it clear what your Covid 19 response will mean for your Local plan timetable. Consider putting together a special newsletter/update on progress of the Local Plan.

Check what delegation is in place for the Covid 19 emergency.  Can an LDS update be done quickly under delegated powers? The most important thing is to be clear and transparent on what the immediate measures taken are, and that longer term measures will follow.  No-one expects you to have all the answers now but it is important to keep everyone in the picture.

Q - We have just adopted our Plan/SPD etc. How do we stand on publicising the adoption (Reg 35), and allowing the judicial review period?

A - Reg 26 states "As soon as reasonably practicable after the LPA adopts a local plan…”. Govt. guidance on essential journeys, closed council offices/libraries, etc. probably means that right now it isn’t "reasonably practicable" to make docs available for personal inspection. Publish digitally for now, but don't start your six week period as currently you can't satisfy the full reg. Make it clear on your website what you’ve done and that you will follow up when restrictions are lifted or changed.

Q - How will we monitor completions?

A - The end of the monitoring year will need to be handled differently - basically without physical site inspections. Many councils make great use of data collection and only undertake the minimum site inspections which we can learn from.

Check in with colleagues e.g. council tax, building control; are they operating remotely, and can data still be provided? Think about whether other data sources can substitute for physical site inspections, e.g. street naming, bin registrations etc. Talk to GIS colleagues about whether Ordnance Survey updates might help?

In the absence of physical site surveys, can you get information direct from house builders. Email all applicants about extant permissions if possible – you can use this Google Forms (template here shortly).

FAQ: Planning Applications

Q - How will people submit applications to us? What about approval of details (e.g. materials)?

A - If you have closed your office you will need to explain how people can submit information and details of sample to you. 

Q - Do we still need to place site notices and send neighbour letters? What about site visits?

A - Yes, although this could change if the Development Management Procedure Order (DMPO) is amended. There are some obvious practical difficulties providing laminated notices if the office is closed, and the separate issue that people might not get to see them if they are staying at home. Note that the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) has ceased all site visits from the 23rd March. You may want to think through how to use alternative means to get information about sites, and to carry out an assessment of which sites might be low risk (e.g. outdoor areas accessed from open access) or high risk (possibly inside Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs)). 

Q - Do we still need to place newspaper adverts?

A - Yes, although this could change if DMPO is amended. 

Q - Will performance targets for speed and quality still stand?

A - Yes, although the Government has demonstrated in previous years that they recognise that there are exceptional circumstances that mean it would be unreasonable to expect the performance thresholds to be met.

Q - Can we suspend planning applications? What about prior notifications and deemed consents?

A - No. The "Dear Chief Planner" letter published on the 23rd March makes clear that planning applications need to continue to be dealt with in a timely way. 

FAQ: Planning Committee

Q - Can we hold a virtual planning committee?

A - Yes. The Coronavirus Act 2020 passed into law on 25th March 2020, and the Regulations enabling local planning authorities the freedom to change the way planning committees are run were published on 2nd April 2020 (and come into force on 4th April 2020). The regulations include provisions for the 'place' of meetings to include electronic, digital or virtual locations; 'attendance' / 'being present' / 'voting' at meetings to include 'by remote access'; and that a document being "open to inspection” includes being published on the website of the council. 

Q - How can we involve the public in a virtual planning committee?

Councils have begun running committees giving thought to video conferencing/web casting and testing ways of enabling public speaking. PAS will be shortly be putting out an advice note on running committees in the short term, and how to prepare a more resilient offer overall.

FAQ: Developer Contributions

Q - Can CIL payments be postponed where development has stopped?

A - Where development has commenced, there are no provisions in the Community Infrastructure Levy regulations 2010 (as amended) to allow postponement of a CIL liability that’s due. Payments not made in line with council policy mean that the full payment is due immediately.
Late payments - Regulation 85 states that councils “may” impose a surcharge, suggesting there is discretion on surcharging and the means of enforcement (remember though that this has implications for continuation of an instalment plan and interest (Regulation 87)) .  
Where development has not commenced, and no commencement notice received, you can bring forward a new instalment policy. Regulation 69B sets out the criteria for enabling this.

FAQ: Planning Appeals

Q - What is happening with planning appeals?

A- See the updated coronavirus advice from PINS here

FAQ: General, practical advice

Q - Is there any advice about prioritising or triaging planning applications?

A - In the event that less council resources are available to determined planning applications, it might be appropriate to think about which applications are most important. Depending on your local area, you might decide to prioritise those that deliver the most benefit or are central to the delivery of your local plan. 

Q - What can be done to support councils who have struggled to implement home working?

A - Many councils have systems and ICT equipment already in place to transfer staff home where they can work quite seamlessly. Others do not have suitable software or laptops in sufficient quantity. These are important corporate issues and may take time to resolve. In the meantime it may be worth checking in with your neighbouring authorities to see if there is any spare capacity or the ability to share resources, skills or commercial arrangements more widely. 

Q - How can planners support local businesses?

A - Planners and councils will be important part of helping local businesses and the economy "bounce back". We are collecting ideas - if you have any get in touch. 

Q - What about Ombudsman cases?

A - The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has announced that it has suspended all casework activity that demands information from, or action by, local authorities and care providers.

Q - What is the current position with Building Control and site inspections?

A) Not natural territory for PAS but we know many heads of planning also manage building control. Construction sites are still operating and Local Authority Building Control services are recommending that only the most urgent construction work should be supported on site. 'Visits' are being done remotely via appropriate alternative mediums e.g. via WhatsApp/Skype and/or using photographs. Councils are also, following a risk assessment, continuing to physically attend dangerous structures or where severe health & safety issues have been raised.This is the latest from LABC.