It’s impossible to have missed that, despite the intentions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011, the UK is about to experience its third General Election in less than five years. At 00:01 on Wednesday 6 November we entered the “pre-election period of sensitivity”, which will stay in effect until polling closes on 12 December 2019. Frequently referred to as “purdah”, this period marks a time during which, according to Cabinet Office guidance for civil servants, “the Government retains its responsibility to govern ... However, it is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long term character”. In particular, “decisions on matters of policy on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view should be postponed until after the election”. The rules that govern the pre-election period of sensitivity are convention rather than law. Assuming that convention is followed, what will the impact of the pre-election period of sensitivity be?
Impact of purdah on planning
Pre-election periods can weigh heavily on planning, influenced by politics as it is, but the impact could be particularly deep this time, with so many initiatives awaited, consultations ongoing and decisions due – the main driver for this election may be Brexit, but a shift of power could bring major policy change across the board. We understand that the main parties’ manifestos will be published next week, following which we will have a better idea of how planning may be affected post-election, but purdah also has an immediate impact. We have considered this in previous posts – see here and here – but it is worth revisiting again in the context of this election.
The most obvious impact is on legislation that has been introduced to Parliament but that has not been passed. We discussed how this has affected the Environment Bill in our blog post earlier this week.
The Cabinet Office guidance also makes clear that “In general, new public consultations should not be launched during the election period” [Cabinet Office emphasis]. This puts paid to the promised consultations on permitted development rights for upwards extensions and demolition of commercial buildings for new homes, the expected “Future Homes Standard” for all new homes, additional planning guidance on housing diversification, and expected secondary legislation enabling the delivery of starter homes and exempting starter homes from the Community Infrastructure Levy. The Government is also unable to publish its promised Accelerated Planning Green Paper, which may have included promised further reform in land value capture and the compulsory purchase regime. There is an exception to the convention – where “launching a consultation is considered essential” [again, Cabinet Office emphasis] permission can be sought from the Propriety and Ethics Team in the Cabinet Office. However, it is hard to see how such an exception would apply to any of the above.
What about consultations that are ongoing, or have just finished? Ongoing consultations should “continue as normal”, but there is a ban on publicising them during the pre-election period, so the consultation period may need to be extended. This affects the ongoing follow up consultation on the planning system for electricity storage which closes on 10 December.
As for consultations which have closed but on which the Government’s response is awaited, these are also in limbo. This impacts a raft of measures including consultations on the New Homes Ombudsman, conservation covenants, PD rights for 5G deployment and electric vehicle chargepoints. The Government’s response to the July 2019 Committee on Climate Change reports, Progress in preparing for climate change and Progress in reducing UK emissions, is also affected, as is the long overdue final response to the National Infrastructure Assessment, due in July 2019 following the publication of the Government’s interim response in October 2018. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission may still publish its final report in December 2019, probably after the General Election, but whether the government of the day decides to pursue the design ambitions of the current government is to be seen.
It is not just national government that is affected by pre-election convention. The Local Government Association has also published “A short guide to publicity during the pre-election period“, which makes clear that local government is also in a period of “heightened sensitivity” and that “extra care should be taken when undertaking anything that could directly, or be perceived to, affect support for a party or a candidate”. Whilst councils are allowed to discharge normal council business, the restriction on publicity could impact on new local consultations. Arguably it could also affect the timing of the Mayor’s response to the London Plan EIP Final Report, depending on whether or not he proposes to accept the EIP Panel’s recommendations, although the validity of the recommendations themselves will not be affected simply by the pre-election period coming into play.
Purdah most foul ...
A final point to note. According to a House of Commons Briefing Paper of 5 November 2019, the term “purdah” has fallen out of favour with the Civil Service owing to its alternative meaning, recommending instead that the phrase “pre-election period of sensitivity” be used. As “purdah” is such a commonly used term, it may take time for habits to change.
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