The Covid-19 pandemic has caused widespread uncertainty within the homebuilding sector, including for those who have submitted a planning application, have requested pre-application advice, or are hoping to submit their application. For many, the pertinent question is: will it be harder or take longer to obtain planning permission?
There is good news though. Projects are still receiving planning permission, and in many areas of the country the planning system is still pretty much business as usual. The message from the government is simple: keep planning moving.
Council committee meetings are now taking place virtually, and local planning authorities (LPAs) have been told to take innovative approaches in order to continue the decision-making process. The government’s chief planner, Steve Quatermain, advised planning departments: “We encourage you to explore every opportunity to use technology to ensure that discussions and consultations can go ahead.”
Councils have also been instructed in a letter by Quatermain to “consider delegating committee decisions where appropriate”. This could mean planning officers are able to determine applications themselves without requiring a decision from the planning committee.
But, there are still several questions that many self builders and those planning an extension still have. Homebuilding & Renovating spoke to industry experts to ascertain what self builders and renovators need to know about securing planning consent during the coronavirus outbreak.
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Q. What happens if you submitted a planning application for a new build or extension before the outbreak?
Applications which have been submitted could take longer to go through the consultation process, and with planning departments suspending site visits, perhaps making the process more complex.
Sally Tagg, Managing Director at Foxley Tagg, and planning expert for both Homebuilding & Renovating and the National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA), says: “The advice I’d give to people with projects in motion now is to be proactive and keep trying to contact your planning officer. Make sure you do this via email, as this is useful to keep for future reference.”
Being proactive is important because LPAs are experiencing depleted resources, and with case offices working remotely they may not be able to be as proactive themselves in contacting applicants.
Paul Testa, from Paul Testa Architecture, says that maintaining communication lines is one of the biggest challenges facing planners and self builders alike right now. He said: “What we’ve found with the projects that we already had filed for approval is that we’re really struggling to get hold of officers.”
Moreover, some LPAs may not be updating their websites with responses following the statutory consultation period of 21 days. This formal consultation period begins once an LPA has accepted an application.
Tagg says: “Some authorities will put consultation responses on their website as a rule of thumb, but I don’t think that all of them have been put up. That means that self builders have got to be proactive and contact the case officer and say ‘Have you had any consultation responses, because I can’t see anything on your website?’ This isn’t because local authorities are trying to be difficult, it’s just that they don’t have the resources to put them on.”
However, Testa believes that a prospective increase in delegated decisions could lead to speedier decisions being made.
“LPAs are more likely to be making a delegated decision than they were. While they may still be discussing applications with their colleagues, there’s an inherent implication there that there is slightly less due process, therefore the opinion of an officer with regards to whether a proposal complies with planning policy is going to carry more weight than it has done in the past.”
The good news is that it appears applications are still being pushed forward. Architectural design practice Ke-Design has received approval for two planning applications this week, including one project before the statutory time limit, demonstrating that there is room for optimism that applications will still be reviewed on time.
Q. Can I file a planning application now?
Yes. As the government has said, it’s business as normal where possible. While planning applications may take longer to validate, no major delays have been reported. Planning applications are still being decided within the statutory timeframe (typically eight weeks for a new home or extension) in many instances.
And while site visits are not taking place in place, councils have set up alternative methods of reaching planning decisions, perhaps utilising Street View, and local knowledge.
Tagg therefore recommends self builders and renovators take a series of proactive measures to ensure your application is as thorough as possible. “If you’re putting in a planning application now, you have got to be the eyes of the officer as well. You need to be putting in some really good photographs, so the officer can clearly see the proposal site, because they can’t go to the site themselves.”
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Q. What happens if the date on my planning permission is about to expire?
With build work halting on many sites across the UK, this is understandably a big concern for self builders and renovators. The government has been urged by the National Federation of Builders (NFB) and the House Builders Association (HBA) to automatically extend all planning permissions by a year.
Any planning permission granted expires after three years (unless your permission says otherwise), meaning applicants have three years from the date of permission to begin the development. If work has not begun by then then applicants will likely need to reapply.
If work has not begun by then then applicants will likely need to submit an outline renewal application, whereby you resubmit the original planning application at one quarter of the fee. This again holds the applications for three years, but conditions may be altered by the planner.
Tagg stressed the importance of being proactive to make sure your application remains live. She said: “If you have a planning permission that is likely to expire before the planning conditions can be released or your scheme can be implemented, you will effectively lose your permission. So you need to plan ahead even more than you might in normal circumstances, as in the current circumstances, the planning process may well be slower.
“You can resubmit the same application again and so long as the circumstances remain the same, the planning authority should be supportive of the scheme again. But you need to make contact with the council and explain the situation, if there has been a policy change or other material changes you might have difficulty.
“The date on your decision notice is therefore an important one to be aware of, now more than ever, you need to be ahead of the curve and make sure that all planning conditions are cleared down too, as this takes time. Get professional planning consultancy help if you consider that you need it.”
Q. What could council committee meetings (including planning committee meetings) taking place virtually mean for self builders and renovators?
Following last week’s announcements that planning committee meetings can now take place virtually, some have been left wondering “How will this work in practice?”
Planning committee meetings are public meetings where elected councillors assemble to decide whether planning applications should be approved or rejected. Prior to the legislative changes announced in the Coronavirus Act 2020, all councillors were required to attend these meetings. Now, all council meetings can now take place without members being in the same location.
“This will enable councils to make effective and transparent decisions on the delivery of services for residents and ensure that local democracy continues to thrive,” said the government.
Testa says of this amendment: “You might find that councillors are more generous and more inclined to say yes to your application because they need their local economy to be as productive as possible.”
He added, however, that the new rules could affect self builders trying to represent themselves in committee meetings, unless the LPA can properly manage this.
“There’s a personal touch you can achieve by going into a meeting as a self builder that might lean a wavering councillor in your direction, that you won’t be able to achieve on a video call. You’re not going to be able to say very much, and you might not even be invited to make a representation. So I’m not sure yet how that is going to work. That might be difficult.”
Tagg does not believe the virtual change should make too much difference though. She said: “I think the system will play out in the normal manner, I don’t think it will make any marked change to how applications are considered. It’s a different method of the meetings taking place, but it won’t affect the decision making process. Each authority has different ways of functioning but, ultimately, the process is the same.”
And asked whether self builders’ representation will be affected, Tagg added: “Each council will have a mechanism for self builders to address the committee, whether that’s by writing something and submitting it, and an officer would read that out; or whether they facilitate a link to the self builder to get involved. It may depend on which authorities have the greater technical provisions.”