The Government has introduced further changes to the permitted development regime in its latest response to help tackle the impact of the Coronavirus.

Taking effect from 9 April, health service bodies and local authorities in England are now able to undertake development on land that they own, lease, occupy or maintain to allow the emergency development of facilities without having to submit a planning application. Emergency in this case means an event or situation – such as the current Coronavirus pandemic – which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in England.

The new right is broad and flexible to facilitate development including the change of use of existing premises, temporary hospitals, health facilities, testing centres, coroner facilities, mortuaries, accommodation and storage and distribution uses including for community food hubs.

However the right is not completely unfettered and is subject to a number of conditions, including:

  • Any permitted development must cease by 31 December 2020, at which point all buildings, structures etc. will need to be removed and the land restored to its previous condition;
  • The scale and location of any permitted development will be restricted, for example by limits on dimensions of buildings within 5 metres of a dwelling house and by prohibiting development on or near protected features such as scheduled ancient monuments.
  • Where development is carried out by health services bodies they will have to notify the local planning authority as soon as practicably possible of their occupation of a building and land.

Although the new right envisages the local authority or health service body taking control of the development itself, the authority or body doesn’t have to own the land on which the development is to take place.  

For land and property owners this creates a unique opportunity to assist the health service. For example, empty car parks, unoccupied hotels or vacant conferencing facilities could be released to local authorities or health service bodies under short-term leases or licences to occupy. Other considerations will apply, including the likelihood of enforcement of breaches of existing planning conditions and the need for any third party consents.

In a time of national crisis, these small but positive changes in the planning system demonstrate its capacity to be flexible. Given the uncertainties ahead, thought should be given to building permanent flexibility into the system to allow emergency powers to be switched on and off as necessary.