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How will the planning system cope with the coronavirus?

Shutterstock generic council committee

The planning system is just one of many parts of life in the UK struggling to keep operating with the partial shutdown caused by the coronavirus, writes Tom de Castella

A number of local authorities, including Carlisle City Council, have already cancelled their planning committees. But many say they are continuing as normal – though this will undoubtedly change as the government gets tougher on social distancing.

Most councils say they are keeping the situation under review and waiting for advice from central government, which may come later this week.

Last week Salford City Council’s planning committee gave consent for the £365 million Cotton Quays project. A spokesperson for the council says it is looking into the law surrounding planning meetings before making a decision on what happens next.

In Brighton, the aim is to keep things running as close to normal as possible. Today’s (23 March) planning committee meeting was still on at the time of writing. Ideas being considered for the meeting are: holding meetings with a full committee; a reduced committee; an emergency sub-committee involving one member of each of the three political groups (Green, Labour, Conservative); and if none of the above are possible, officer urgency decisions, which would mean planning officers making decisions that cannot wait.

‘Any changes to the planning system will need to be made by central government,’ a council spokesperson says. ‘Our aim is for planning committees to continue but there will be changes in line with the current advice on social distancing. This will likely be a reduced number of councillors in attendance … We also hope to maintain the ability for public involvement but will keep it under review.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Leeds City Council said its chief planning officer would assess time-critical decisions anticipated over the next three months. ‘Where councillor decision-making is required, we will consider delaying these until anticipated emergency powers allow meetings to be conducted by councillors remotely.’

In Glasgow, council meetings have been suspended, with the chief executive and senior officers taking over the decision-making process.

Councillors have been told not to be in the City Chambers unless they have to be. Only one committee is still sitting: the city administration committee, which is the council’s main decision-making forum and can make some planning decisions. Delegated decisions continue to be made and the council is continuing to deliver the planning process as best it can, a spokesperson says.

In Aberdeen, planning development committees are one of the few committees to continue working and its meetings will take place as scheduled.

Likewise in Cardiff, the planning department is ‘continuing as normal’ although all services will be reviewed in the light of new government guidelines, according to a council spokesperson. Cardiff’s planning committee has just met and its next meeting is scheduled for four weeks time. A decision on whether that meeting goes ahead has yet to be taken.

Meanwhile, there are a range of options that are being increasingly used by councils up and down the country, especially in urban areas.

Sue Manns of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), the main body representing planning professionals, said: ‘We will be looking at how we can best keep building and development going and how to ensure that after this crisis has receded we minimise any backlog of pending permissions.

‘We continue to explore the opportunities afforded by digital technology to aid us in doing this.’

The institute is now consulting planners on what the major issues are, and will write to ministers in the coming weeks to make helpful suggestions, Manns said.

If we were in this situation 10 or 15 years ago we’d be in an even worse place

Greg Dickson, director of planning consultancy Barton Willmore in Manchester, says a ‘hiatus is coming’ in terms of planning decisions. Bury Council has just emailed him to cancel the planning committee scheduled for next week. 

But he says the situation could be much worse were it not for recent technological developments. ‘If we were in this situation 10 or 15 years ago we’d be in an even worse place,’ Dickson says. ‘There is the conferencing technology available. It just requires the sophistication and good IT teams to make it happen.’

He has already had a meeting with Salford City Council over Skype and is having a meeting with Rochdale next week via Microsoft Teams, a platform also being used by the GLA for pre-application meetings.

Once social distancing begins to bite, he believes major schemes will be delayed by ‘a month, two months’.

Most of the time that won’t matter, but in a number of schemes funding streams depend on planning being achieved by a certain date.

Estate regeneration schemes will also be delayed. While much consultation can be done online, when it comes to introducing local people to major projects, face-to-face meetings are necessary, he says.

Simon Pemberton, senior director at planning consultancy Lichfields, told Place North West that the postponement of local elections in May would mitigate some of the delays in the system. ‘The relief from the potential for ‘purdah’ [the pre-election period of non-decision-making by councils] ahead of the now-cancelled May elections has provided a glimmer of light. But uncertainty remains in the short term.’

Neil Lucas, planning director at Avison Young in Manchester praised how planning was coping. ‘It’s been pretty resilient. At the start [of the virus outbreak] there was a bit of uncertainty but once people realised this was for the short to medium term more innovative solutions like pre-applications conference calls were used.’

He says a decision is expected soon from the government’s chief planning officer, Steve Quartermain, on whether planners need emergency powers. This could mean the relaxation of rules on how many people need to be in the room for a planning consent decision to be legitimate, and whether public objections could be heard via a virtual connection.

There’s no doubt that there will be a lag. Some schemes will have been scheduled anticipating a certain result in the local elections, he says. ‘We’ve got a few big schemes where we’ve worked very hard to get into the April planning committee. And are now in limbo. Others are due to go in June in the first meeting after local elections and obviously that [election] is not happening now.’

Whether this crisis leads to tactical tweaks or a radical shake-up of planning is unknown. The government had announced planning reforms in the budget. But that is now overshadowed by the day to day demands caused by covid-19.

What Lucas does expect is for a culture change in the way planning views technology. Old conventions are likely to be dumped and new ways of working enthusiastically embraced. ‘The days of driving three hours to a pre-application hearing may be over,’ he says. Instead, he believes, Skype, Zoom et al will enable a more nimble, flexible way of working particularly in how planners and architects consult the public. ‘The days of putting a board up in an empty shop will change.’


Readers' comments (3)

  • Can meetings like this not take place remotely? Plenty of conference call technology, document sharing and other ways to keep everyday functions running while adhering to social distancing measures

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  • Planning decisions have always been taken remotely! Let's be clear: smaller applications are determined by officers delegated to do so, and major applications are 'sorted out' at pre-app behind closed doors between officers and applicants, with senior members very occasionally giving a steer, before the wider world knows anything. The fig leaf of Planning Committee is largely just that - a fig leaf. It only offers the slimmest chance of the public influencing the decision, provided the public is united, determined, and politically connected, and provided they are determined to stay the course long after the Planning Committee has rubber stamped the decision, by unpicking that decision through the courts - that is, until Boris' Brexiteers abolish this capability, probably quietly right now through force majeure.

    So the fig leaf is finally off. We all sit apart in our homes, deprived of our means of earning our income, while developers continue to cook up highly profitable schemes which can seriously harm the public good - but to which the public are effectively completely disengaged from - and get them approved without any oversight... And Jenrick's just announced that they can also implement such permissions, with construction sites able to remain open during the 'lockdown'

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  • The latter scenario has an uncomfortable parallel with the retail trade, where many local shops are in suspended animation while the 'tax-lite' Amazon behemoth is enormously busy, desperate for more 'fulfillers' and is in talks with the government to deliver coronavirus test kits to front line NHS workers (presumably at a price)
    No guesses as to who's going to come out on top at the end of the day.

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