Planning moves quickly for COVID-19
There has been understandable concern from developers and planning professionals alike regarding how the planning process can function in the period of lockdown brought about by COVID-19.
Whilst some industries are able to hit the pause button during this period, planning cannot shut down. Countdowns are still running regardless, whether it be to submit a planning application within a contractual deadline, to appeal a decision, or bring judicial review proceedings. Whilst the courts have some discretion when it comes to judicial review time limits, other time limitations are set in statute and the courts don't have the option to extend these. As a result, the planning process is having to adapt quickly to avoid substantial delays and unhappy stakeholders.
Planning committees were suspended following the lockdown and the government has acted quickly to ensure that delays are minimised. As of the 25th March, under s.78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, it is no longer required for local planning authorities to have physical committee meetings, which can instead be streamed online.
Public inquiries, including site visits were also suspended following the lockdown. The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) is also considering online conferencing to enable remote inquiries and hearings to take place having been pushed into action by the Planning and Environment Bar Association.
PINS have so far been trialing a small number of less complex inquiries. However, there has been no public statement on what the criteria for selection are, nor timescales involved etc. Naturally, online conferencing gets less practical when several experts or witnesses are required. The main obstacle seems to be how site visits will be undertaken. One suggestion has been by drone or it may be that these too can be conducted remotely by streaming in due course. Without site visits almost no appeals, even those being processed as written representations, can be decided.
The Lord Chief Justice has made it clear that the courts must continue, whilst taking all precautions to avoid unnecessary contact. Initially this meant simply keeping your distance from others, however now the Coronavirus Act 2020 contains various modifications allowing online conferencing in court. Whilst the Government acknowledges that this technology would ordinarily involve extensive testing, given the current, unprecedented public health emergency, these have been rolled out ahead of time. Remote Courts Worldwide has been launched to allow lawyers share experiences and develop these remote systems. Note also that the admin and fees office is closed so all claims must be lodged electronically and there is a concern that no new claims are currently being processed by the Administrative Court, so delays are going to be inevitable for things like judicial review leave applications.
More specifically to the Planning Court, online conferencing has been underway for the last week in London, Manchester, Birmingham.
The planning system has reacted with relative speed to ensure that planning applications can be determined and legal challenges can continue to be heard. It is to be hoped that the Planning Inspectorate will be able to apply the same ingenuity to ensure that the appeals process also continues to function.