As we come to terms with the changes the COVID19 crisis has brought to daily life, and with all indications suggesting the “new normal” is here for some time yet, the current uncertainty presents our industry with numerous challenges as we try to plot our way through.
‘Business as usual’ is not an appropriate phrase to use in April 2020 however at Iceni our aim is to ensure that our service to clients continues uninterrupted. This may have been assisted by clear advice and legislative amendments emerging from the Scottish Government over the past week.
The Scottish Government has recognised that “a high performing planning system will have a critical role in supporting our future economic and societal recovery, and our future health and wellbeing” . The maintenance of a functioning planning system has been identified as the Planning and Architecture Division’s top priority. On Friday the Chief Planner outlined a range of temporary measures in support of this. Some of these will require urgent legislative change while others will rely upon stakeholders adopting a practical and flexible approach.
Of particular note, the following changes are to be implemented during the emergency period:
• Pre application consultation with communities – the requirement to carry out at least one public event during pre-application consultation on major and national developments is to be suspended. As an alternative, prospective applicants will be expected to replace the public event with an online version, sufficient to ensure local people are engaged and have an opportunity to influence proposals that affect them.
• Duration of planning permission – recognising those planning permissions in risk of lapsing in the weeks/months ahead, the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill includes provision to extend the duration of all planning permissions due to expire in the next 6 months for a period of 12 months from the date the provisions come into force.
• Documents for public inspection – the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill also allows public bodies not to comply with the circumstances of the planning system that require certain documents to be made available for physical inspection at a specified location e.g. libraries and Council offices. Instead, such documents and information is to be published online during the emergency period.
• Decision-making: committee meetings, local reviews and schemes of delegation – although Local Authorities already have powers to hold committee meetings virtually, the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill provides that, for the duration of the emergency period, local authorities have the power to exclude the public from their meetings on health grounds. Amended regulations will also suspend the requirement for local review bodies to meet in public. Where authorities wish to amend their schemes of delegation under the Planning Act, the Scottish Government has committed to process approvals “very quickly”.
The focus on delivery within these measures is to be welcomed but it remains to be seen how they will be applied at local planning authority level. At the time of writing service levels vary authority by authority, with the primary focus seemingly on administering existing case load as opposed to new proposals. As an example, The City of Edinburgh Council has taken the decision to suspend their Pre Application Service until further notice, while due to issues with statutory publicity and notification requirements, the Council will not be able to determine any new applications submitted post-lockdown.
Given the obvious challenges to planning service provision the difficulty in keeping proposals moving through the system during this period is recognised. There is a danger, however, that the purpose and effectiveness of the Government’s new measures, which focus on new and existing proposals, will be diluted if too many barriers at the outset of the process emerge: how, for example, do prospective applicants take informed decisions about projects, such as progressing with community consultation, in the absence of pre-application advice?
As the COVID19 situation continues to unfold perhaps a more uniform approach to maintaining a functioning planning system will become clear. At the same time, and difficult as this may be at the moment, the Scottish Government and local planning authorities must try to look beyond COVID19 and consider the measures they can implement to support our industry’s recovery.
How can this be achieved once the initial emergency measures expire? Will the Scottish Government’s pragmatic response to COVID19 be mirrored as we move forward? Does scope exist for overarching Government policy advice to aid recovery or will local authorities tailor their approach to reflect economic conditions in their area? In a plan-led system, will current LDPs be fit for purpose or will supplementary guidance be necessary to help stimulate development?
Many questions remain…in the meantime, during these unprecedented times, Iceni will continue to track all emerging COVID19 regulations and monitor planning authority service levels to assist our clients.