Following the dissolution of parliament on Wednesday due to the 12 December general election, the purdah rules governing the pre-election period have kicked in. Richard Crawley, programme manager at the Local Government Association's (LGA's) Planning Advisory Service said the latest LGA guidance on purdah "is pretty clear that business as usual must go on". The guidance note was originally issued on the eve of the 2017 general election which, like 2019, was not on the same date as local elections. So whilst guidance was issued directly to the civil service, the LGA document states that local government is also in "a period of ‘heightened sensitivity’".
A code of practice drafted under the terms of the Local Government Act 1986 states that councils "should not issue any publicity which seeks to influence voters". It adds that councils should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views on proposals in a way that identifies them with individual councillors or groups of councillors. In practice, the document said, this means not producing publicity on matters that are politically controversial. Councils should "think carefully" before continuing to run campaign materials or launching any new consultations. "Unless it is a statutory duty, don’t start any new consultations or publish report findings from consultation exercises, which could be politically sensitive," it said.
"Under the guidance, councils are not to publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views on proposals in a way which identifies them with individual councillors or groups of councillors," said Stuart Tym, senior associate solicitor at law firm Irwin Mitchell. "It would definitely not be a good time to promote a particular long-term plan or anything even slightly party political."
Crawley said consultations on local plans could be put back whilst the election takes place. "A delay of a few weeks in the scheme of things is not such a difficult situation to manage, so I would expect consultations not already in train to be held back slightly," he said. David Coleman, director at DAC Consultants, which specialises in advising planning authorities, agrees that the onset of the election could impact on local plan timetables. "Local authorities currently grappling with how to plan to meet higher housing numbers arising from the application of the standard methodology may be tempted to postpone consultation or submission of a local plan in order to see what materialises from the election," he said.
According to Planning Inspectorate (PINS) guidance published yesterday, all scheduled local plan examinations and hearing sessions will continue, or begin, during the pre-election period. However, to "avoid making announcements that could be politically sensitive," he said inspectors would not be issuing any "letters regarding the soundness or legal compliance of local plans, or final reports, until after the election".
For development management, Crawley said the guidance is clear that planning applications - even controversial ones - have to be decided and planning committees must continue. Tym points out that planning authorities "should have planning committees which are fairly constituted and otherwise non party-political". Purdah will be "either the best or the worst time" to have a planning application heard at committee, Tym argues. "Done properly, it may be the fairest hearing possible as councillors run scared of the monitoring officer and being seen to have made a decision to promote their political party," he said.
Any politically-sensitive appeal decisions will also be postponed, said the PINS guidance. "In the run-up to the general election, we are concerned to ensure that decisions or recommendations relating to proposals which have raised sensitivities or interest in an area cannot be deemed to have influenced the election in any constituency or, more broadly, across the country, or have been used to electoral advantage by any interested body," it said. Whether a decision or recommendation should be held back until after the election results is a judgement taken by senior PINS managers depending on the circumstances of the case, he added. Meanwhile, examinations of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs), have to comply with a statutory time limit and so the examination is expected to run to the published timetable, the guidance note added.
How might purdah impact on developers? Planning barrister Christopher Young QC, of No5 Chambers, said: "There is no reason why applications cannot be determined, even for large sites, as this is not a purdah period for local elections." But he said developers "will shy away from a determination if they think there is a risk of refusal" and are likely to request a deferral. However, if the council is trying to determine the application within the statutory time period or it is subject to a planning performance agreement with a specific deadline, this "becomes difficult".
The election may also have a more practical impact on local authority planning team staffing levels, say commentators. Tym said there may be "two to three days when the council planning department is running a skeleton staff" when staff are seconded to help run the election. But Coleman warns of potentially wider impacts. "Already-stretched local authority resources may be re-prioritised to take on election duties," he said. "In the build up to an election local venues and meeting rooms are often commandeered, which can cause significant difficulties for officers in holding meetings or engagement events (particularly in smaller local authorities)."