This week, offices, schools and public places are being closed in response to COVID-19. Herbert Smith Freehills continues to provide a full client service, with our teams mostly working remotely but, as with all businesses, those involved in planning are trying to work out the best ways to continue with projects and what accommodations need to be made to do that. The impact of COVID-19 measures on national and local planning services could cause delay with planning applications, appeals and court proceedings. These are fast moving times and the news changes on a daily basis, but this is what we know so far regarding the impact of COVID-19 on PINS, local government, the courts and Parliament.

Planning Inspectorate guidance – updated 18 March 2020

PINS has published guidance on the impact of COVID-19 on site visits, hearings, inquiries and other events.

As at 18 March 2020, PINS has recommended that its staff avoid unnecessary or non-essential travel. Appeal hearings and inquiries will not proceed, although PINS is considering alternative arrangements, including the feasibility of technological solutions or whether a case can be decided by written submissions following questions raised by the Inspector. Site visits can continue to go ahead on an unaccompanied basis, provided that the inspector is able to travel to a site without using public transport.

Two local plan examinations which were due to take place this week, the North Hertfordshire local plan and the Chiltern and South Buckinghamshire local plan, have been postponed, although in the case of the Chiltern and South Bucks local plan the Inspectors have decided to consider duty to co-operate matters through written representations to ensure that the examination can continue until hearings can be resumed.

The PINS complaints service is also limited as a result of travel restrictions – see here.

Civil and Family Court guidance – updated 19 March 2020

On 17 March 2020, the Lord Chief Justice announced that, “whilst the latest guidance from government on how to respond to COVID-19 will clearly have an impact on the operation of all courts in every jurisdiction … it is of vital importance that the administration of justice does not grind to a halt”. The courts are working through the implications for operating the courts and “recognise the need to increase the use of telephone and video technology immediately to hold remote hearings where possible”.

The Lord Chief Justice confirmed this on 19 March, saying that “The default position now in all jurisdictions must be that hearings should be conducted with one, more than one or all participants attending remotely”. It was noted that “the rules in both the civil and family courts are flexible enough to enable telephone and video hearings of almost everything. Any legal impediments will be dealt with” and the courts are “working urgently on expanding the availability of technology, but in the meantime we have phones, some video facilities and Skype”, and “many more procedural matters may be resolved on paper within the rules”. In relation to civil appeals, it was noted that “most applications for permission to appeal … are likely to be suitable for telephone hearing”.

It was noted that arrangements are being made “to include those working in the courts within the scope of key workers who will be able to continue to send their children to schools”.

Local government guidance – updated 19 March 2020

MHCLG has published guidance for local government during the COVID-19 outbreak. This is further to the package of measures announced by the Chancellor in the Spring Budget on 11 March 2020. Amongst other measures, councils are to be able to use their discretion on deadlines for Freedom of Information requests and legislation may be brought forward to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period – for more information see here.

Council services such as planning may well be impacted by government guidance issued yesterday on which council staff are “key workers” for the purposes of maintaining essential services during the COVID-19 crisis. Staff defined as key workers include those working in:

  • key public services – which includes “those essential to the running of the justice system, religious staff, charities and workers delivering key frontline services, those responsible for the management of the deceased, and journalists and broadcasters who are providing public service broadcasting”; and
  • local and national government – but only including “those administrative occupations essential to the effective delivery of the COVID-19 response, or delivering essential public services, such as the payment of benefits, including in government agencies and arms length bodies”.

Staff of planning departments may not be seen as key workers. Those staff who are able to work may be asked to help with other departments providing essential services.

Parliament – updated 16 March 2020

On 16 March 2020, Parliament announced that all non-essential visitor access to both Houses would be stopped from 17 March 2020 and that from 20 March Westminster Hall debates would be suspended.

COVID-19 has also impacted the work of the Public Bill Committee considering the Environment Bill (see our blog on the Bill here). Sittings of the Committee have been suspended until further notice (see here). It remains to be seen whether it will be possible for the Bill to make its way through Parliament in time for the end of the Brexit transition period.

We are keeping an eye on developments as they happen.

Our construction team has also considered the impact of COVID-19 on construction contracts – see HSF Construction Notes here.

Please contact us for our briefing note on COVID-19 advice to landlords.

For further information, please contact:

Matthew White
Matthew White
Partner and Head of UK planning, London
+44 20 7466 2461
Catherine Howard
Catherine Howard
Partner, planning and environment, London
+44 20 7466 2858
Fiona Sawyer
Fiona Sawyer
Professional support lawyer, planning, London
+44 20 7466 2674