Don’t let Coronavirus be an excuse for making planning less democratic


A joint statement by Just Space, CPRE London, Friends of the Earth and London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies 

published 27 April, 2020 to be sent to councillors, GLA officers and assembly members and others. Please circulate widely and discuss what we do next.  This was the subject of a segment in BBC Radio 4 The World Tonight on 27th April. Listen here or download as podcast. In news items at start, then report at about 13th minute.

The new Covid19 regulations for Local Authority meetings risk undermining the communitys role in the planning process, as decisions could be made in virtual committees and closed meetings for up to one year. 

The way the planning system operates, like so much else, is going through significant change as a result of the coronavirus. It is vital that the process is not distorted in ways which disadvantage the vital role of community groups in informing local planning decisions.  

While planning has an important role to play in economic recovery, we have found serious dangers in the way in which some councils are changing their decision-making processes, which could result in long-term damage to the interests of local communities and to the environment.

Our rapid review reveals that Councils are interpreting the new rules for virtual meetings in very different ways. Some are re-assembling their planning committees online, while others will make key major planning decisions in closed meetings or increase delegation to unelected planning officers. The ad hoc access to the democratic process creates an unfair postcode lotteryfor local communities. 

Under normal circumstances major planning decisions are made by a vote in open meetings of elected councillors, with speaking rights for applicants and objectors. Fairness and transparency are fundamental to every Local Authoritys constitution and to planning policy. These principles risk being eroded.

We are calling on the Secretary of State and Local Planning Authorities to safeguard the role of local communities in the planning process and ask them to respect six key principles

1.  No planning application normally decided by a committee should be decided using delegated or executive powers. 

2. Virtual meetings should be reliably live streamed on video, with speaking rights for public objectors / third party representatives, as with normal committee meetings. 

3. Councils should produce a report setting out how, under the Covid 19 regulations, they will follow best practice for the involvement of communities, particularly disadvantaged communities and those with less access to technology and broadband.

4. Councils should create, and promote widely, a designated website page giving full information on upcoming meetings and consultations, providing clear guidance to communities and third parties on how to take part.

5. Councils should look to extending deadlines attached to the determination of planning applications and responding to consultations. 

6. Any public referenda or votes associated with Estate Regeneration should be put on hold until there is a reliable, democratic way to vote, as has happened with the referenda for Neighbourhood Plans. 

The role of Government  

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) must do more to recognise the important role of communities in decision-making and to highlight the risks of failing to engage local communities. The input and expertise of communities and third parties can be critical to the creation of better, more resilient developments.  

We are calling on Ministers to temporarily relax or extend deadlines for the determination of planning applications, to take the pressure off councils while they make the necessary changes to their systems, and to provide further guidance to them. 

The pressure to keep the economy moving is not a reason to allow short-term, environmentally-damaging development that we may live to regret. 

27 April 2020

See also web site of the London Forum

Download PDF version of this statement – suitable for printing or sending to others: Statement Planning in the Covid Era

Boroughs & Covid-19: update

The London Forum of Amenity & Civic Societies —members of Just Space and one of the partners in our campaign to defend democracy & participation during the pandemic— has sent this update, reporting on their survey of London Boroughs by Paul Thornton:

“Following … two Zoom meetings and the many contributions from member societies, we have consolidated the current state of play and our recommendations on best practice in an interim report available on the London Forum website via this link.

In general, the picture is better than we might have imagined. The transfer of Planning online has gone reasonably smoothly, it has had benefits as well as drawbacks, and some of our greatest concerns (greater use of delegated powers, loss of speaking rights at Council committees etc) have either not materialised or been confined to a handful of boroughs.

The information about the changes brought on by Coronavirus on most boroughs’ websites, though, is poor. It may well be there somewhere, but it is mostly poorly organised and hard to find. We have therefore included in the above document a model of what should be included, and how it can be made more accessible. We will email this to the Head of Planning Service and the Chair of the Planning Committee in each London Borough in the next couple of days.”

In the full report (linked in para 1 above) is also the finding that few councils have given much thought, if any, to how community participation can be maintained, let alone improved – though there are a few positive signs and some suggestions from the Forum.

See previous post for more on the campaign by Just Space, London Forum, CPRE London, Friends of the Earth and TCPA.



Ministry defensive on virtual meetings

8 May: The Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government (the ministry responsible for the planning system in England) has responded to the letter from Just Space and a number of bigger and national networks in which we had defended transparent and democratic features of the planning system and called for government action.

The ministry’s reply is mainly defensive, arguing that their priority has been to keep the planning system functioning and to give local authorities the flexibility to innovate in how they do that. [The implication seems to be that it’s up to the council how they proceed; complain to them if you are unhappy.]

On the more positive side, though, the letter does say that the government expects councils “…to provide for full participation in the planning system by the public and the press…”

Our letter had been a joint one with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, CPRE London, Friends of the Earth, London Forum of Civic & Amenity Societies, and the Town and Country Planning Association (see previous post). The ministry reply in full is here MHLG Response 20200506

Just Space is now in discussion with the other organisations about further steps to be taken. Meanwhile we do need member organisations in London to keep a close watch on how their councils are behaving during the lockdown. Are decisions being made by smaller groups of councillors or delegated to officers to an increased degree? Is public access as good as before? How are councils handling consultations on local plans and other documents, as well as applications for permission? How are councils protecting the rights of those who cannot access online systems?

Watch this space and follow us on twitter at @JustSpace7.

Add a comment here below if that is easiest.

Virtual meetings

Because of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) crisis none of our member organisations can hold their meetings and many have been seeking advice on how to switch to online meetings.

In response we are putting together some advice for community organisations, drawing. on Just Space member organisations and a wide network of people across Europe facing the same problems.  It’s in the form of a document which anyone can read, print or edit so please add your own experience where you think that can make it more helpful. In just 24 hours it’s already become worth publishing. It’s at

Continue reading

More ‘reforms’ for English planning

14 March 2020 The government publishes proposals for changes to planning in England at

Paul Burnham comments: Both this document and the letter to the Mayor (see previous post) share this objective, ‘Everyone should have the chance to save for and buy their own home so they can have a stake in society.’

In other words, home ownership is seen as full citizenship, and to be a renter (or homeless) is to be outside society, and not to be able or willing to share in its progress – or to be concerned about ‘society’ in the same way.
In the early Nineteenth Century, the ‘stake in the country argument’ was used to deny those without land (by ownership or tenancy) the right to vote; and this remained the case until the electoral reforms of 1918 and then in the 1940s.
Okay back to 2020, it’s worth noting that there is little or no distinction in planning policy within ‘market’ housing between owner occupied and private rent properties: the ‘best’ and the worst tenures for residents are simply shunted together as one.   The fate of the poor in practice is thus private renting, and it is private landlordism rather than home ownership which is being supported here.
This is all packed with bad news. The use and extension of permitted development rights for developers will be a big campaigning point.
Kind regards
Paul Burnham
Haringey Defend Council Housing


Breaking: Minister boxes Mayor’s ears

Today, Friday 13th, the Secretary of State wrote a very aggressive letter to the Mayor of London, chastising him for the inadequate performance of earlier plans (notably the under-production of housing) and using his powers to direct changes in the London Plan.

The Plan is thus – in effect – in Special Measures.

Letter and an annex specifying re-wordings are here:

He takes it for granted that escalating house prices are the result of inadequate building and that more building would be the solution, so he is extremely critical of the Mayor’s failure to build and will not accept the Plan without a list of changes (detailed in the Annex).

The government priority is the housing ladder and not social rented housing. He favours family housing but otherwise most of his points are contrary to the aims of Just Space and its member groups. We were already highly critical of the Plan on multiple grounds of worsening inequality and on environmental grounds. How much worse it’s going to be now.

— Mandatory residents’ ballots on regeneration estates, which have been a key win for us (& are recommended in his own ministry’s guidance), he calls ‘onerous’;
— Expansion of Opportunity Areas and proposes further jacking up densities there and in other already-dense areas;
— Wants the low-to-mid density areas (ie the suburbs) protected with ‘gentle densification’;
— Deletes “No Net Loss” of Industrial Land;
— Metropolitan Open Land quantum can be reduced.
This drastic action by the minister would have made it impossible for the Plan to be revised and adopted before the pre-election shut-down (called purdah) but the election has now been postponed until 2021 so the Mayor can go ahead…
Please let us have comments below or links to assessments and analysis. We’ll report further soon.
A first summary is by a firm of planning consultants, Lichfields, who comment from an implicitly pro-developer standpoint:
Meenakshi Sharma (Ilford NOISE) writes:  I have received a tweet from Assembly Member Andrew Boff saying We can only convene if the Mayor presents a plan to us. If he does so we will’. I have asked him if it is solely up to the Mayor to present the plan or if the other LA members can ask for him to do so.