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Covid-19: Planning System

Volume 803: debated on Monday 8 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to make temporary changes to the planning system as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is important to keep the planning system moving so that it plays a full part in the coming economic recovery. We have already made significant temporary changes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic—for example, allowing virtual planning committees more flexible working hours on construction sites, alongside giving authorities more flexibility on publicity requirements. We continue to monitor the situation.

My Lords, I declare my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. To support the economy and the wider construction sector, the Government should introduce emergency powers to extend planning permissions that are due to expire in the next six months for an additional period of up to one year. This would ensure that projects at risk of losing their permissions can get under way. Does the Minister agree with this approach? If so, how does he intend to take it forward?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that construction is an important part of our economic recovery and that the delivery of new homes is vital. The Government have been made aware by both planning authorities and the development industry that delays have been caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a risk of unimplemented planning decisions lapsing and therefore undermining the delivery of projects. We recognise these concerns and are considering whether permissions should be extended.

I declare my interest as noted in the register. Can the Minister confirm the reports across the weekend media that the Government are intending to take planning decisions away from councils and give them to development corporations? This is extremely concerning after recent developments in Tower Hamlets, which resulted in the developer not having to pay between £30 million and £50 million in the community infrastructure levy?

The situation at the moment is that there is a planning commission that has started under my right honourable friend Chris Pincher, the planning Minister. I cannot make any further comments about what the noble Baroness has read in the media.

I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Given that much development is controversial and provokes much local opposition, should the Government not be working more with local authorities to win popular support for major developments and housebuilding, not undermining them by a further removal of planning powers?

I am not sure how this relates to the original Question. All the proposals from the Government around making the existing planning system work pragmatically are on a temporary basis. There is certainly no intention to take away planning powers from local authorities within these measures.

Can the Minister confirm that any temporary changes to the planning system will not result in any loosening of environmental policies?

I can absolutely make that guarantee. Our temporary changes to the planning system, including the use of virtual planning committees and more flexible publicity arrangements, are all about enabling planning decisions to continue to be able to be made, consistent with social distancing rules. There is absolutely no loosening of environmental standards or protection.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government remain committed to Sir Oliver Letwin’s recommendations for enhancing, not diminishing, the role of local authorities in planning by requiring a wider mix of homes for people of different incomes and ages and by capturing the big increases in land values created by the granting of planning consents?

I am afraid that I did not capture all of that because of the quality of the transmission, but I can certainly say that we will be taking into consideration Oliver Letwin’s findings in his report.

Can the Minister give us a timetable for what the Government intend to do, and when, given that there is an urgent need for action in this area?

I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Lord a precise timetable, but we are well aware that many of the emergency measures that we need to reboot the economy, including making the requisite planning changes, need to occur before the Summer Recess.

My Lords, what assurance can the Minister give that homes constructed under permitted development rights will be required to meet all the policy standards, including accessibility, set out in local planning policy?

Certainly there is no diminution in the standards required for accessibility in these temporary and pragmatic changes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Some very big planning decisions being taken at the moment are going to impact on the UK for well over 100 years: for example, Sizewell C. The planning application has been extended for two months so that more people can make their views heard. But, quite honestly, would it not be more sensible to defer these very big applications until after the lockdown, so that local people can engage properly?

I note the point about the potential deferral of sizeable planning applications, but at the moment we have introduced measures that are pragmatic and temporary to enable a proper continuation of the planning system, even for major decisions.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Cambridgeshire Development Forum. Can my noble friend assure the House that the Government are following through on their guidance to local authorities by ensuring that they make a swift and positive response to requests from developers to extend construction working hours, so as to facilitate safe working and social distancing?

My noble friend raises an incredibly important point. It is important that we recognise that the extension of construction hours, as provided for in the guidance, is there to enable construction to continue within social distancing guidelines. We will continue to ensure that it is enforced through regular engagement with the construction industry and other interested parties.

Lockdown and working from home have shown the importance of personal space and easy access to outdoor space. Will the Government take that forward in planning guidance, especially for flats and accessible homes, while noting that statistically there is less availability of such spaces for black and ethnic minorities?

We note the point that the noble Baroness makes about the importance of access to open spaces. I am sure that it will be taken up by my colleague the Housing and Planning Minister in his planning commission.

I congratulate my noble friend and the Government on their temporary measures to support greener transport options and promote economic recovery. Can he give the House some idea of the Government’s plans to support economic recovery across all our regions, by creating jobs in projects such as onshore wind or community renewable schemes?

I thank my noble friend for raising this issue. It is important to recognise that over a period of just two months, £27 billion has been provided in funding for local authorities and local areas—a considerable sum. We will continue to look at all measures required to ensure that we reboot the economy after this wretched pandemic.

My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked and I congratulate colleagues on that. We now move to the second Oral Question, which is from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley.