The Chief Planner and The Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (DPEA) issued fresh updates at the end of May, to help Scotland's recovery from the impact of COVID-19.

The Chief Planner's updates on 29 May are: "planning procedures and COVID-19" and "COVID-19 and development planning". The DPEA also produced an update on 28 March.

Overall themes

The overall theme is that continued operation of Scotland's planning services are essential in supporting recovery: "The need for a well-functioning planning system is as important now as ever."

There is specific reference to appropriate development proposals being consented in good time to facilitate delivery on the ground.

Unusually, there is emphasis on avoiding formality, through reaching informal agreements or taking a sympathetic approach to enforcement of breaches of planning control.

The key issues covered in the updates are:

  • Site visits
  • Virtual committee/ local review body meetings
  • Construction sites – working hours
  • Other temporary changes, eg. on-street seating
  • Planning appeals
  • National Planning Framework 4
  • Development plans

Site visits

The Chief Planner notes that a lack of site visits has prevented live planning applications from progressing to a decision. Alternatives are mentioned, such as drawing on existing knowledge of an area and supporting that with tools such as satellite imagery, photographs and video conferencing technology.

There is also reference to ability to carry out a physical site visit, and whether that can be done within the scope of physical distancing requirements. Travel for essential work-related purposes is permitted if it cannot be done from home.

Virtual committee/ local review body meetings

Planning authorities are encouraged to hold their committee meetings virtually. This follows the indication from HOPS that only one-third of council meetings are still running.

Construction sites – working hours

Now that there is a route map, with a phased approach to re-starting construction on non-essential sites, planning authorities should be supportive of reasonable changes and requests to extend working hours on construction sites.

Requests should not be refused, unless there are compelling reasons, for working hours from 7am to 9pm, Monday to Saturday. Depending on the nature of the works and the surrounding area, much longer site operation times may be acceptable, including 24-hour working.

In most cases, it is expected that agreement can be reached informally, without the need for an application process. Planning authorities should take a sympathetic approach to any breaches of existing working hours conditions.

Temporary relaxation of planning controls

There is also mention of temporary relaxation of planning controls, including a sympathetic approach to enforcement, to help businesses re-start and return some normality to life within our communities.

Examples include taking a reasonable, positive and supportive approach to temporary use of on-street seating for cafes and bars, beer gardens and similar to accommodate physical distancing; and also enabling seasonal businesses such as holiday parks to continue operating beyond any conditioned limits to their seasons.

Planning appeals

Brodies' research indicates that the crisis has had a significant impact on planning appeals, with only 15 decisions issued in April and May, compared to 32 in the same period last year.

DPEA reports that site inspections have been carried out virtually; reporters have used site photographs and Google Earth to assess the merits of developments; and drone footage has also been used. Oral sessions have been held via audio and video conference.

The main focus for the DPEA update is revised arrangements for site visits, in light of the Scottish Government route map.

When making arrangements for pre examination meetings or hearings, DPEA will consider the timing of the proposed meeting and anticipated timescales for further easing of restrictions currently in place.

It may take the form of a traditional oral session, one that recognises physical distancing, and/or a virtual meeting.

The precise arrangements applicable to alternatives will be dependent on the subject matter, size and nature of proceedings and the overarching obligation to secure a fair hearing. Factors include:

  • the capacity of individuals with limited access to, knowledge of or experience in using Skype or conference call facilities;
  • the difficulty of parties with more than one participating officer or employee being involved (and of legal representatives to take instructions), if complying with separation requirements and therefore potentially not being on the same line or in the same location; and
  • the feasibility of operating these for large numbers of participants.

DPEA recognises that public local inquiries have potentially significantly greater practical and other challenges.

Parties are urged to work with DPEA to make inquiries (so operated) as fair and transparent as possible, even if progressing these by written representations alone would involve the waiving of an entitlement to an inquiry.

National Planning Framework 4

Laying a draft NPF4 in the Scottish Parliament has been postponed until autumn 2021, with a final version being adopted in spring/summer 2022.

This takes into account stakeholders’ ability to get involved in preparing the draft, the period required for consultation, the timing of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, and also the revised timescales of other government policies with which the NPF4 must align.

An interim position statement will be published in autumn 2020.

That will provide an update on the Call for Ideas evidence gathered in early 2020; explain how NPF4 will align with other Scottish Government strategies; set out an overview of the key challenges, opportunities and potential policy changes for NPF4; and reflect on the impacts of COVID-19 and what NPF4 can do to help societal and economic recovery.

Development plans

Scottish Ministers do not wish development plans to be progressed through the system without sufficient or inclusive engagement.

Planning authorities are asked to consider allowing longer timescales and more flexible arrangements for engagement in development planning in the coming months. It is noted this may mean that more local development plans will remain in place for a longer period of time than usual.

Housing land audits

Planning authorities are to take a pragmatic approach to the annual housing land audits.

There is no explanation of whether this refers to a less strict approach to information requirements, or if it is acknowledgment that the preparation process might take longer.

You can find our previous updates on planning and COVID-19 here and here .