How can UK local authorities comply with Regulation 4(1)(b) of the Neighbourhood Planning (Referendums) Regulations 2012 in light of current coronavirus restrictions?

United Kingdom Publication March 2021

Regulation 4(1)(a) and (b) provides as follows:

4.— Information to be made available in relation to referendums

(1) Proper officer of the relevant council must ensure the information statement and the specified documents are—

(a) published on the website of the relevant council; and

(b) made available during the referendum period for inspection—

(i) at the principal offices of the relevant council; and

(ii) where the relevant council controls any premises which are open to the public in the referendum area, at such of those premises as the council considers appropriate having regard to the desirability of ensuring a geographical distribution of premises where the statement and documents are made available, provided that in all cases they are available at least at one such premises

The Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) in a new paragraph entitled “What changes have been introduced to neighbourhood planning in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic?” (Paragraph: 107 Reference ID: 41-107-20200925) introduced on 25 September 2020 states:

“The government has been clear that all members of society are required to adhere to guidance to help combat the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). The guidance has implications for neighbourhood planning including: the referendum process; decision-making; oral representations for examinations; public consultation; and the Community Infrastructure Levy. This planning guidance supersedes any relevant aspects of current guidance on neighbourhood planning, including in paragraphs 007, 056, 057, 061 and 081 until further notice.

Referendums: All neighbourhood planning referendums that have been recently cancelled, or are scheduled to take place, between 16 March 2020 and 5 May 2021 are postponed in line with the Local Government and Police and Crime Commissioner (Coronavirus) (Postponement of Elections and Referendums) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 until 6 May 2021.”

As a consequence of the postponement of neighbourhood plan referenda until 6 May 2021, there is no requirement for local authorities to adhere to Reg 4(1)(b) at the present time. The date of 6 May 2021 was of course introduced before the government’s latest steps plan announced on 22 February 2021. That plan indicates that on 6 May 2021 England will be in “Step 2”, whereas “remaining businesses” (which would appear to include council offices) will only be permitted to open in “Step 4”, being a date “no earlier than 21 June”. It would therefore appear that Reg 4(1)(b) cannot be complied with until 21 June 2021 (or thereabouts), irrespective of whether a referendum can be held from 6 May 2021.

The government may update the Local Government and Police and Crime Commissioner (Coronavirus) (Postponement of Elections and Referendums) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 to bring it in line with the “Steps”. Another possibility is that the government may allow the referendum documents to be made available in some other way, or may suspend the requirement for physical inspection. Various coronavirus regulations have temporarily relaxed physical inspection requirements for planning applications, applications for listed building consent and environmental statements because these cannot realistically be complied with. These temporary changes expire on 31 December 2021. Instead, local authorities have greater flexibility in how they publicise certain planning applications during the response to coronavirus. The PPG states:

“…the authority must take reasonable steps to inform any persons who are likely to have an interest in the application of the website where notice of the application can be found. Those steps may include use of social media and communication by electronic means and must be proportionate to the scale and impact of the development.” (Paragraph: 037 Reference ID: 15-037-20200513 Revision date 13 05 2020)

In relation to compliance with Reg 4(1)(b), it will be a case of waiting to see what action the government take as the date of 6 May 2021 approaches.

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