A Planner’s Reflection: What a Year, What a Start

31st March 2021

March 2021 represents both the 1-year anniversary of the initial lockdown and my (Jamie Wallace) first year of working at Bell Cornwell. It is fair to say that Covid-19 wins the prize for having the biggest impact on the development industry and will no doubt be more memorable! Although the devastating impact of the pandemic cannot be understated, there have also been some positive outcomes for our industry.

Almost as soon as I had stepped foot into the London office and familiarised myself with all the local eateries that Southwark has to offer, Boris Johnson announced the stay-at-home order. Many businesses had already been moving towards a more flexible working routine and the virus is likely to have accelerated this. Such a change in working habits does pose the question: how will it impact the demand for office stock or indeed the offer and flexibility of the floorspace? Undoubtedly serviced offices and co-working facilities will become ever more popular, as the benefit of team collaboration cannot be realised entirely when working remotely but many businesses will want to retain flexibility with their accommodation requirements.

The evolution of our High Streets has also been accentuated and quickened as a result of lockdown. The closure of many premises is evident, most notably in city centres where office workers are the primary customer. Overtime, as we have adjusted our working habits in response to the crisis, evidence suggests there has been a redistribution of spending to local shopping areas on the doorstep of residential populations.

The work at home requirement inevitably slowed down the delivery of construction projects, at least initially. The associated reduction in travel and manufacturing witnessed a tangible improvement to the air quality in many cities. This has served to further intensify the push towards more sustainable modes of transport and delivering on the ‘Green Agenda’.

To help lessen the impact of the outbreak on the development sector, the Government introduced a number of temporary measures. The actions include amendments to the Community Infrastructure Levy regulations to defer payments and new permitted development rights to support health service bodies and allow food premises to operate as a takeaway without the need to make a planning application. Virtual planning committees also allowed the decision-making process to continue, which has proven to be a success in response to the circumstances.

In addition to temporary legislation, we have also seen the introduction of truly radical changes to the planning system. In response to the issues faced by the high street, the new Use Classes Order provides more flexibility for business and property owners to respond to the changing demands of the market (visit our FAQ page). New permitted development rights for upward extensions show the intent of the Government to maximise development on existing sites. Although the uptake for this has been slow, due to the expansive nature of the associated prior approval process, it does act as a pre-cursor to the mass roll out of design guides as identified within the White Paper.

Whilst grappling with the impacts of Covid-19, the New London Plan saga played out in the background and its adoption in March signifies another landmark and commitment to delivering a drive towards carbon neutral developments and urban greening. Read more in our article ‘London Plan Adopted at Last‘.

As a sector we have learnt the importance of embracing digital technology and how it can enhance the planning system, both in terms of decision making and community participation. Covid-19 has forced us to spend more time within our homes and attribute significant value to amenity space and the offering of our immediate locality. As planners we have a duty to embrace the shift in priorities and better understand how public health and wellbeing is at the centre of place making.

I look forward to utilising these new opportunities on behalf of Bell Cornwell’s clients and to build upon the important lessons we have learnt as an industry following such a challenging year. With my second year with Bell Cornwell already underway, I also hope to be reunited with my talented and supportive team in the office again very soon!

For more information about how any of these things mentioned above may affect your planning project, please get in touch here.

Jamie Wallace, Associate

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