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Letter sent to MHCLG about planning system during the Coronavirus pandemic

On 20 April 2020  South Oxfordshire District Council leader Cllr Sue Cooper and cabinet member for planning, Cllr Anne-Marie Simpson sent a letter to to the Minister for Housing Communities and Local Government regarding the planning system during the covid emergency. The letter is printed below.

Dear Mr Jenrick,

I am writing to draw your attention to issues that are facing us in administering the planning system during the Coronavirus pandemic.  I appreciate that you and Cabinet colleagues are keeping the position under view and I would appreciate you feeding my concerns into those discussions.  I would like to make the case for relaxing determination target dates and the requirement to maintain 5 year housing land supply for a short period, while local authorities are rightly moving significant staff resource to work on supporting residents through the Covid emergency.

Our planning system remains operational.  Many planning applications are already determined by officer delegation, but our planning department is currently under pressure as we have had to redeploy staff to our coronavirus Community Support Hub, working with county, NHS and police partners.  It would not be a surprise if our excellent record on meeting determination target slips while we have fewer staff available in our planning and legal teams.

South Oxfordshire and our town and parish councils are responding well to the challenge to find innovative ways to maintain their normal functions, including registering, processing and determining planning applications.  However, several parish and town councils, civic societies, council officers and elected members have expressed their concerns to me about our ability to adhere to national planning deadlines during the crisis and the resulting risks that local planning authorities will be exposed to.

Due to social distancing restrictions it is hard, if not impossible, for site visits to take place.  Town and parish councillors have raised this as an issue determining their opinion on certain applications, where, even with local knowledge, they feel a site visit is essential.  Officers and members of the planning committee are also disadvantaged by not being able to fully understand the impact of some developments as a result of the restrictions on site visits.  Use of photographs and videos are not quite the same.  Technology enabled committee meetings are not yet proven to be able to support genuine public engagement.  These are very new concepts within our democratic system and do not yet have the confidence of our residents or towns and parishes, even in Councils who already have web-enable committees.  We must be careful not to undermine confidence in local democracy and our planning system, by weakening or reducing public, or indeed councillor, participation in order to meet determination target dates on planning applications.

We have some potentially contentious applications coming up which will require input from many statutory consultees, and with all consultees under resource pressure and communities understandably focused on the Covid response, I worry that the pressure to meet targets will significantly reduce our ability to get such developments right and open the council up to challenge from developers and residents alike.

I would also like to emphasise that the technical and democratic input required to ensure that the communities we build are socially and environmentally sustainable has never been more urgent and important, not only to respond to the climate emergency but also for the recovery period following this pandemic.

South Oxfordshire District Council has targeted significant staff resource at promoting and ensuring implementation of the business rate support schemes, offering advice to businesses across the district.  We are supporting our communities, via a Community Support service, and we are working closely and positively with our County Council.  In a low cost organisation where around a third of our staff are planning related, knowing we can flexibly redeploy these, in a responsible manner, without being unjustly penalised in respect of targets applied nationally to the planning system would make a real difference over the coming weeks, which I understand are critical on both a local and national level.

I am not suggesting a complete closure of the planning process, nor rejecting out of hand the recent move by Government to allow remote meetings.  I do, however, think that we must show our local communities that we are listening to them and their concerns at a time when we are asking them to make great sacrifices, and where they are asking for a temporary pause in our processing of some planning applications, we are able to show trust and compassion by agreeing to that.

Therefore, I ask you to consider suspending the statutory planning targets and adjust the 5 year housing land supply requirements during the period of the Covid crisis – perhaps reviewing it on a three month rolling basis as with other aspects?  Many builders in this area have stopped or adjusted work on the larger housing sites so it will be more difficult to keep up with the currently required level of delivery to achieve a five year land supply against our submitted Local Plan.

By allowing this flexibility, whilst enabling the council and the community to focus on protecting lives as part of the emergency relief effort, you would be making it easier for local democratic input into planning decisions to continue without risking poor development decisions and legal challenges (with associated costs) arising from councils doing what is right for our residents, businesses and the NHS and would be doing so safe in the knowledge that over recent years housing delivery has been at all-time highs within our District.

Yours sincerely

Councillor Sue Cooper         

South Oxfordshire District Council leader

Councillor Anne-Marie Simpson 

South Oxfordshire District Council cabinet member for planning

Co-signed by group leaders:

Councillor Robin Bennett – Green Party

Councillor Jane Murphy – Conservative Party

Councillor Mocky Khan – Labour Party

Councillor Stefan Gawrysiak – Henley Residents Group

Councillor Simon Hewerdine – SORT