AN OPEN LETTER TO MINISTRY OF COMMUNITIES AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT DURING COVID-19 OUTBREAK
by DUNCAN HARTLEY
Rural Solutions proposes 10 point plan to Ministry of Communities and Local Government during COVID-19 outbreak offering guidance to improve services now and in the aftermath.
The short term effects of COVID-19 for rural businesses and communities are obvious. However, rural businesses are showing their significant value to the nation in keeping it fed, watered, sheltered and safe.
Rural businesses have been incredibly responsive to adapting their ways of working to enable prompt and widespread access to food and core provision, and also in delivering rural health services quickly and where they are needed.
The long term economic and social effects from the current crisis are going to be mighty, the impacts of income forgone and the delays in development and diversification measures may well see the demise of many rural businesses unless effective financial and policy support mechanisms are put in place in the short term. Picking up the rural economy, as well as the urban economy, after this current crisis is going to need the same level, indeed a greater level, of urgent policy response as that implemented by the excellent National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (2012) after the 2008 global market crash.
With this in mind, we would like to share both Rural Solutions’ and its clients’ learning and experience to date from the rural authorities we work with day in, day out and to outline where we consider Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) can enhance their service delivery. Some of this is apparent and due diligence, but it is included for the sake of completeness. We hope you find this useful and that you can share this content with colleagues and councils and relevant bodies.
The key message from our rural clients is a pressing need for momentum. Brexit has proven a significant diversion and has caused great delays in development from the rural sector, add COVID-19 to this and we have a double whammy of immense impact. Speed and clarity of decision making are absolutely essential for our clients who have significant investments to make in diversifying their operations to ensure survival post-Brexit and now COVID-19. Some clients have expressed real concern at a move by some authorities to postpone decisions on ‘contentious applications’. This is a very poor response. When will the time come for them to be reviewed? These authorities should be stating now how they are going to change systems in the short term to ensure delivery of swift decision making.
We have spoken with many rural organisations, including the CLA (Country Land and Business Association), in compiling the brief content here – a 10 point commentary/plan of action. We intend to engage with the MCLG further, as these measures are being addressed, to review and bring forward new rural policy which will give the necessary step changes in securing the vitality of our rural communities.
1. SCHEME OF DELEGATION
LPAs need to use their emergency powers immediately to amend and ensure all applications and policy decisions can be made under the revised schemes of delegation as soon as possible. LPAs may wish to add consultation with Chairman/Vice-Chairman on relevant decisions to ensure effective political engagement.
2. PLANNING COMMITTEES
We are awaiting the legislation that Robert Jenrick, Communities Minister, has given notice will allow council planning committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period. We commend this urgent action at the COVID-19 bill.
PINS appear to be on the ball and have acted quickly. We commend the swift issue of guidance and sincerely hope it continues to be fleet of foot.
3. LPAS USING TECHNOLOGY TO FULL EFFECT
4. SITE VISITS (OUTSIDE) AND SHARING VISUAL INFORMATION
I am sure LPAs are taking advice on whether site visits can take place over the next three weeks (or more). Nevertheless, in the short term there are means to share site and other videos, images and information via file transfer platforms. This can help maintain timely decision making, we need to keep the wheels turning. Applicants will/should have significant additional site records from videos and photographs that will aid LPA decision making.
5. POLICY AND ITS APPLICATION
We ask MCLG to issue guidance on applications that must be given priority/additional support in the decision making process and the balancing act. This can apply to applications which bring clear community and/or economic benefits. We cannot wait for a revised NPPF to establish where a new weight is applied to a material consideration. On these projects, the applicant needs to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the LPA that the development will be delivered quickly following the grant of permission and so the benefits are realised in the short term.
We need to build greater resilience into our rural communities and quickly. The planning system has to play a major role here.
6. ADMINISTRATION OF APPLICATIONS
We are seeing LPAs responding quickly on how to ensure effective notification takes place eg. applicant erected notices wherever feasible, systems for uploading information to LPA planning portals. These need to be speeded up and the council websites need to specifically reference the ‘new procedures/new way of working’ so applicants and the public know of the new ways of administrating/working or if it is business as usual.
7. SUBMISSION REQUIREMENTS
The application submission requirements for applications must be flexibly used in the short term to enable applications to get in the system. Some site surveys may simply not be possible in the short term and this should not hold back validation. New guidance is required from the DCLG here to ensure decisions made are sound.
8. INTERNAL COUNCIL COMMUNICATIONS / CONSULTATION RESPONSES
LPAs need to use technology to ensure the effective engagement of internal and external consultees is not halted.
9. TIMELY AND EXTENDED DECISION MAKING
Knee jerk refusals cannot be the way forward on a revised scheme of delegation! We are confident this will not happen if the LPA planners are given the tools and the flexibility in making decisions. Extended time horizons for prior approvals need to be addressed now. Extended time horizons, as required, for all application types needs to be applied. Enforcement may be stalled at present without the ability for officer site visits, however, the site owner should still be able to respond on requisitions for information if they have direct/immediate access to sites. Immunity from enforcement has to be addressed in the short term measures by LPAs and the Government.
10. PRAGMATISM AND MANAGED RISK-TAKING
In the very short term risks will have to considered on process matters. Now is not the time to dither. Jobs and livelihoods are at risk.
We already know in just the last few weeks that a new way of working can be a better way of working. Our systems are being challenged and planners are responding positively. Planning has always been at the forefront of local government services in being open and accessible. The opportunities now exist to enhance that accessibility and the quality of service provision. This can be accelerated, but only with allied investment from the Government as well as from the councils who are at the sharp end of service delivery.