Released on April 14, 2020
On Tuesday 14 April 2020 Cllr Emily Smith wrote to the Secretary of State regarding planning committee concerns. The letter is printed below.
Update: The Government responded to Cllr Smith on 22 April. Please find their response attached as a document to this page.
I write to raise some issues with the arrangements for administering the planning system during the Coronavirus pandemic. I understand MHCLG will be looking at guidance for local planning authorities very soon and I would appreciate you feeding my concerns into those discussions and make the case for relaxing determination target dates and requirement to maintain 5 Year Housing Land Supply for a short period while local authorities are rightly moving significant staff resource to work on supporting residents through the Covid emergency.
I understand your desire for the planning system to remain operational, but Vale of White Horse is an area with a record of high housing delivery and I believe an adjustment to national planning deadlines to allow us to better retain public confidence in the planning system would be something worthy of consideration at this time. Several parish councils, civic societies, council officers and elected councillors have expressed their concerns to me about our ability to adhere to national planning deadlines during the Covid crisis and the resulting risks that local planning authorities will be exposed to.
While many planning applications are determined by officer delegation, our planning department is currently under pressure and we have had to redeploy staff from all departments to our coronavirus Community Support Hub, working with our county council, NHS and police partners. It would not be a surprise if our excellent record on meeting determination targets slips while we have fewer staff available in our planning and legal teams.
Because of social distancing restrictions it is harder for us to do site visits, therefore officers and members of the planning committee are not able to fully understand the impact of some developments – the impact on material planning considerations like light, over-looking, etc – nor can they interact with applicants and objectors in the same way. Technology-enabled committee meetings are not yet proven to be able to support genuine public engagement. They are very new concepts within our democratic system and in places do not have the confidence of our residents or towns and parish councils.
As you know, one of the requests from the DCN on the recent ministerial call with council leaders was for your department to meet any costs associated with judicial reviews linked to virtual planning meetings; something that would no doubt reassure our town and parish councils as well as many district and unitary councils. Is this something you are considering?
We have some large and contentious applications coming up soon that will result in large numbers of homes towards our 5 Year Housing Land Supply figures, but these determinations will also require input from many statutory consultees, close working with the county council to ensure the transport, health and educational infrastructure meets the needs of our growing community and the local economy. With all consultees under resource pressure and community understandably focused on the Covid response I worry that the pressure to meet targets will significantly reduce our ability to get such developments right and open the council up to challenge from developers and residents alike. My district is one of the fastest growing in the country, but I am determined that the homes and communities we build must be socially, environmentally sustainable – and this may not be possible if we are under pressure to grant permission without the technical and democratic input required.
One of our parish councils wrote to me asking to contact you and ask “that local planning authorities should not be penalised or badly judged by central government if, for the duration of the crisis, they are unable to fully meet the targets and deadlines for determining applications. We feel that this would bring two benefits. It would prevent difficult (and irreversible) planning decisions from being made with inadequate consideration and democratic scrutiny, and it would give planning authorities greater leeway to transfer staff to more urgent coronavirus-related work, such as support for vulnerable people.”
Vale of White Horse District Council has targeted significant staff resource at promoting and ensuring implementation of the business rate support schemes, on offering advice to businesses across the district to support our communities via a Community Support service and we are working closely and positively with our county council. In an organisation where around third of all our staff are planning related, knowing we can flexibly redeploy these, in a responsible manner, without being unjustly penalised in respect of the targets applied nationally to the planning system would make a difference over the coming weeks, which I understand are critical on both a local and national level.
I am not suggesting a complete closure of the planning process, nor rejecting out of hand the recent move by the government to allow remote meetings. But at a time where we are asking our communities to make great sacrifices, to come together and support each other, and to have trust in their representatives in a way that has never been need before in peacetime, we also listen to them and where they are asking for a slight pause in our processing of planning applications we are able to demonstrate compassion and trust in them by agreeing to that.
Clearly, where an application is specifically linked to addressing the current emergency, it would need to continue to be prioritised, but those are few and far between. You will already be aware that my council has taken a proactive approach to a recent application linked to Innovate UK, and I believe is recognised as being not only responsive to local need but accepting of the responsibility that public service brings.
Therefore, I ask you to consider the statutory planning targets and 5 Year Housing Land Supply requirements for the duration of the Covid crisis – perhaps this could be reviewed every three months, in line with other actions the government has taken. By allowing this flexibility you would be making it easier for local democratic input into planning decisions to continue and enabling the council and the community to focus on protecting lives as part of the Covid emergency relief effort without risking poor development decisions, legal challenge and associated costs as a result of us doing the right thing for our local residents, businesses and the NHS.
Councillor Emily Smith
Leader of the Council