As construction work resumes on large public development projects the Government has issued new guidance about the impact of Covid-19 on the process of compulsory purchase.

Compulsory purchase is a vital tool that allows land and property to be assembled for essential infrastructure, regeneration, development, and energy projects. It is reassuring to see the Government providing guidance to authorities with the powers to acquire land on how they can continue to operate under current restrictions.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has published a Coronavirus (COVID-19) Planning Update and placed a Ministerial Written Statement before Parliament.

The key theme from the government is the introduction of greater flexibility into a process that is typically driven by strict timetables and clearly defined steps.

The new guidance includes the following specific measures -

  • Where documents need to be served on affected property owners and occupiers, the rules have been relaxed slightly to reflect the Royal Mail’s current delivery practices.
  • Acquiring authorities using compulsory purchase powers have been asked to extend the time for formal responses from owners; for example, land referencing requests and objections. This will help, because responding fully in 21 days could be challenging under current social distancing restrictions.
  • Confirmation details being returned to acquiring authorities will now be sent electronically, where possible, rather than by post.

This may be the start of a more general move away from the current, paper heavy system, a move that better aligns it with the digital age and will likely bring greater efficiencies for everyone involved. As further evidence of this, the Ministerial Statement confirmed that the first digital hearing of a Planning Inspectorate took place this month. At the same time the government is exploring options for virtual planning events and the full inspection of planning documents online.

Importantly, the new guidance asks acquiring authorities to:

“act responsibly in relation to both business and residential claimants, particularly in terms of the timing of vesting orders and compensation. Residents should not be unduly evicted during this period in line with the Government’s wider guidance on evictions.”

Authorities with compulsory purchase powers have acquired several properties since the 23 March 2020 lockdown, the formal process starting in each case before the current restrictions applied. We have dealt first hand with some of the challenges this has created when decommissioning and vacating property. Ensuring properly documenting property condition for valuation purposes has also been a challenge. Although there is now some relaxation to social distancing, coupled with a tentative start of the return to the workplace, we expect that many of the current challenges will continue while some restriction measures remain in place.

The guidance rightly acknowledges that both businesses and individuals face significant cashflow challenges at present. The timely settlement of advance payments is therefore seen as especially important at this time. Whilst this is certainly true, paradoxically there is now a risk of further delay in what can already be a lengthy process involving staged approval, the agreement of legal documents and their execution before funds can be transferred. When and how compensation is paid is a topic that many will debate long after social distancing ends.

The call for flexibility reflects broader government messaging to the property sector which encourages stakeholders to engage actively with each other to find workable solutions. This means that acquiring authorities and landowners will need to communicate effectively and openly with one another.

Greater flexibility and better communication will help provide more clarity and comfort to landowners, and at the same time assist acquiring authorities progress their public interest agendas smoothly. Parties will need to find new ways to progress land assembly, such as arranging for site inspections, surveys and studies to be undertaken in a safe and timely manner. More creativity may be needed during this time in order to find arrangements that give both parties the certainty and comfort to make key decisions on a fully informed basis.