Departments of planning in the Covid-19 environment

News June 11, 2020

The good news is that the planning system is functioning during lockdown – but only to a point.

Concert gathered together a group of experts to discuss the implications of COVID-19 on planning and found that while video calls and conferencing is helping to keep things moving it isn’t without flaws and not a long-term solution.

Some local authorities have been in a position to react more quickly to the lockdown having already rationalised their office space and set up staff for remote working but a backlog of applications is still developing.

Part of the problem is that planning is a public process. There are huge challenges to delivering public consultations and ensuring that applications have been scrutinised robustly.

Aside from the security issues of video conferencing – there have been isolated incidents with virtual council meetings being hacked – there is an issue of inclusivity as not everyone has access to the right technology.

Applications for bigger projects are also being delayed because of the number of consultees involved in the process some of whom may be challenged by remote working.

The backlog of applications will impact on housing delivery and viability as values drop and costs rise due to supply chain disruption.

Existing planning permissions could expire while on lockdown unless there is Government intervention – Savills research shows that around 47,000 units could fall victim.

There have already been some temporary changes to planning rules to help restaurants offer take-away services and essential healthcare development. After the financial crash in 2008 planning permissions were automatically extended by 12 months and something similar in England and Wales is likely – it has already been implemented in Scotland.

Other changes made after the financial crisis included the ability to renegotiate Section 106 agreements around affordable housing if pre-crash agreements rendered schemes unviable.

However, the landscape has changed. The COVID-19 crisis has made people more aware of social issues and the role of keyworkers. It has also highlighted space issues and the importance of health, wellbeing, green space and clean air which may play a much bigger part in influencing planning policy and decisions in the future.

That doesn’t negate the issue of the viability of development particularly on schemes which have been given permission in the past couple of years. Although it is important to remember that viability of schemes pre-COVID would have been calculated based on the impact of BREXIT.

As lockdown eases, the Prime Minister will no doubt be focused on the economy and planning has often been used to drive that.

The question is what changes could be made. A relaxation of change of use even as a temporary measure, for example, to make it easier to add in food and beverage would help. There is a feeling that permitted development rights may be extended which has had mixed results in the past.

There are also some radical ideas being floated including changing to a zone-based system like the US.

Lockdown has exposed the flaws in planning and is stretching the system, the key will be whether any changes are about quick wins or a more wholesale reform that will provide benefits for the longer term.

Next article