New regulations ease local plan publicity rules in response to Covid-19

The government has temporarily relieved local authorities of the obligation to provide hard copies of local plan documents for inspection in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Local plan inspection: hard copies no longer required under temporary rule changes. Pic: Getty Images
Local plan inspection: hard copies no longer required under temporary rule changes. Pic: Getty Images

In the latest of a series of measures aiming to keep the planning system operating during the pandemic lockdown, new regulations have been published that change the rules around local plan publicity requirements until the end of the year.

According to an explanatory note, the regulations "remove, on a temporary basis, the requirements on local planning authorities to make certain documents available for inspection at premises and to provide hard copies on request".

Local plan documents will "still need to be made available on the local planning authority’s website", the note says, adding that the change will "enable local planning authorities to progress local development documents and act to get up to date local plans in place".

A statutory instrument was laid before Parliament by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on Wednesday. The new rules came into force yesterday (Thursday 16 July) and will apply until the end of this year.

Between 16 July and 31 December 2020, the memorandum says, "a document will be taken to be made available when published on the local planning authority’s website" and there "will be no requirement to make a document available for inspection at premises".

The MHCLG note goes on to say that the physical inspection of documents has been made more difficult due to the effects of coronavirus, including restrictions on movement and increased home-working.

It says the continued closure of local planning authorities’ offices means that it may be "impossible" to provide a physical address for inspection or to receive postal requests for hard copies of documents.

Providing requests of hard copies of documents may also be impossible, given the "potentially substantial" print runs that may be involved.

Even if offices were to open, those shielding or otherwise vulnerable, may still be "unable or unwilling" to travel to inspect documents at premises, it says.

It states: "This has, in several cases, led to a pause in the preparation of local development documents and a delay in the adoption of local plans."

The MHCLG says the changes have been "urgently" brought forward in in response to local planning authorities’ concerns about meeting their statutory duties to make documents available given restrictions on movement and the closure of offices.

New Planning Practice Guidance published yesterday on plan-making (paragraph 079) explains the rule changes.

Paragraph 080 adds that authorities "should consider how they can continue to promote effective community engagement by means which are reasonably practicable, in particular to reach those sections of the community that do not have internet access".

It then refers councils to guidance updates published in May on how authorities can review and update their Statements of Community Involvement "to engage sections of the community who do not have internet access".

The new rules follow the introduction of measures in May to ease publicity requirements for councils in relation to planning applications, including allowing authorities to use social media to publicise them.

The Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 can be found here.

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