New guidance issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) confirms that there will be no relaxation of application determination timescales, despite the COVID-19 disruption.

The current statutory deadlines state that most planning applications should be determined within 8 weeks of submission other than large schemes, which have a 13 week deadline. Whilst there is an acknowledgement that the disruption caused by COVID-19 may mean that timescales are not met in some cases, and developers are encouraged to agree extensions where necessary, retaining the statutory deadlines means that there is still the option to appeal to the Secretary of State on grounds of non- determination where the local authority fails to determine the application within the deadline. This approach will be welcome, particularly given that many local authorities have had a fall in planning workloads during the pandemic.

The new guidance also confirms an expectation on local planning authorities to take advantage of new powers in the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings (England and Wales Regulations) 2020 to hold virtual meetings. Local authorities are expected to hold meetings virtually rather than deferring committee dates to help keep the planning system moving. These new regulations will apply to all local authority meetings until 7 May 2021.

The MHCLG update continues to encourage planning applications to be made online to support social distancing in the workplace. The guidance confirms that priority should be given to the validation of any COVID-19 related applications for planning permission and associated consents, including hazardous substance consents where statutory consultees, if necessary, should be consulted immediately.

In a press statement, the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, has also announced temporary regulations to allow local planning authorities and developers the flexibility to take “other reasonable steps” to publicise applications if existing requirements for site notices, neighbour notifications or newspaper publicity cannot be discharged. These reasonable steps could include publicity of applications through social media such as Facebook or Twitter, to enable continued public participation in the decision making process. These steps must be “proportionate to the scale and nature of the proposed development”.

The guidance confirms that local authorities will also wish to consider how to bring applications to the attention of those who do not have internet access, and who are likely to have an interest in the application; suggested examples include printing in local community newsletters or advertising the application on local radio stations.

Updated Planning Practice Guidance also confirms that the minimum time period given by local planning authorities for residents to make representations on planning applications in their area has temporarily increased from two to three weeks, to address challenges posed by the pandemic.