What will the Planning World look like Post-Pandemic? (Part 1)

1st May 2020

Many aspects of planning have already been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. We consider what planning practice might look like on the other side of lockdown and how politics and planning cannot be considered in isolation.

Straightaway we have seen major changes to the way that planning officers and Councils are working. The new Coronavirus Act and subsequent regulations for holding virtual committee meetings (read about it here) were made within the first few weeks of the pandemic, as well as allowing the temporary change of use to enable cafes and restaurants to operate as a takeaway business (read more here).

These changes have been quick and are immediately impacting on applications and development. Planning and politics are intrinsically linked: the planning system continues to move forward, enabled by legislative changes to ensure that decisions can continue to be made.

But what long term changes might need to be made, what will happen to the procedures of the planning system as a result of our new reality?

There will need to be a major change to the way that local authorities consult on new Plans if they are to make any progress towards the deadline of December 2023, although in many cases the Statements of Community Involvement (SCI) will need to be updated to reflect different methods of consultation.

Technological alternatives could be much more effective at targeting the public with more direct contact through social media, letters and discussions with community groups. This will need significant funding though, as well as agreement from Council Members on new methods of consultation. Councils will need to ensure that all these decisions are future proof and stand up to legal scrutiny.

Similarly, the idea of virtual planning committees does work and potentially makes decision making at this level more efficient. Officers and Members need to have the right equipment and technology and the Council must invest in suitable platforms. We could see changes to Council’s constitutions if rules of social distancing remain for months, although this too is dependent on the willingness of politicians to make those changes. We question whether virtual planning committees would be Councillors’ preferred method for making decisions over meeting in person with fellow Councillors and members of the public alike.

On statutory determination deadlines, a handful of local authorities are already on ‘special measures’ support from the Government where they have failed to reach minimum standards for determining applications within the deadlines. We expect that the number of authorities who fall short will increase, which could overwhelm the Government with the level of support needed where resources might already be stretched. Rules on the minimum standards may need to change to accommodate this, or it could be overlooked while we get through the pandemic.

There are many ways that Covid-19 is affecting our lives and working practices. Procedurally we expect that delays and glitches to the process and public consultation can be addressed with technology. There are other solutions that can enable Local Plans to continue to be consulted on and virtual planning committees to take place. However, the real long-term changes will come down to Councils taking decisions that change the way that the planning system provides for interaction between Officers, Members and the public. We have yet to understand whether major improvements to the current system, to bring some procedures into the 21st century, are realistic given the intrinsic link to politics. We can expect planning and politics to collide in the future through appeals and legal challenges as a result of our current circumstances during this pandemic.

Part 2 of ‘What will the planning world look like post-pandemic?’ is now available.

Bell Cornwell continue to monitor the impacts and changes and keep you informed. If you want to discuss any of the issues raised please do not hesitate to contact us.

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