The post-COVID-19 world and the planning system

Rebecca Petas
COVID-19 has undoubtedly highlighted how dependent we were as a nation on face-to-face interactions, especially within the planning system.

Whether that was pre-application meetings, planning committees or public consultations, it was all hinged on the ability to have a group of people in one place. This all came to a halt due to COVID-19 precautions. As the isolation weeks passed, the nation embraced new technologies and strived for a new version of ‘business as usual’.

What will the post-COVID-19 planning world look like? Of course, we cannot know for sure but what we do know is that the pre-COVID-19 world will not return immediately and the new measures we have adopted will likely remain for the short-term at least. The Government have highlighted the importance of the planning system in getting the economy up and running again. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) released a report on ‘Priorities for Planning Reform in England’ and outlined the key role a digital planning system will play.

The report made a series of recommendations to policy makers and outlined what they think is essential for sustainable economic recovery in England:

  • Resource –The RTPI encourages larger investments in resourcing the Planning Department to allow the planning system to run more smoothly.
  • Embrace technology – With the help of the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020, Planners have utilised available technologies to keep the planning system running. The RTPI outline a need for further investment to ensure Planners are properly equipped.
  • Grants – Grants need to have a more holistic approach to all aspects of the living environment. If anything, this pandemic has embedded the importance of outside space and the quality of our living spaces. It is almost certain we will see behavioural changes going forward and we need to encourage developers to adapt our living environments to suit.
  • Infrastructure-first approach – Robert Jenrick MP previously outlined an ambition for an ‘infrastructure-first approach’. The reintroduction of strategic planning could help marry housing and infrastructure considerations. The pandemic has driven home the importance of having all amenities in walking distance and highlighted how this is closely linked to quality of life.

What does ‘restarting’ the housing market mean for the Planning System in England?

The Government announced plans to extend site working hours to enable flexible working with staggered start times. This will help manage the number of workers on site at one time as well as ease pressure on public transport at ‘peak’ hours. Some sites may be subject to planning conditions that restrict hours of operations. If developers require short-term flexible working hours, then Councils are being reminded that planning enforcement is a discretionary activity. If developers require a long-term change then they should apply to temporarily amend the planning condition.

Robert Jenrick MP announced new guidance on CIL payments to allow for more flexibility. The aim is to help developers manage cashflow by deferring CIL payments. It is noted this is only applicable to developers with a turnover of less than £45 million. Additionally, Local authorities and developers will now be allowed to publicise planning applications using social media to ensure publicity and consultation requirements can be discharged.  

Furthermore, the Government has promised to put in place systems to ensure the planning system can work remotely. At the time of writing the detail of these systems remains unclear, but the Planning Advisory Service is working with local authorities to provide guidance and training.

There are many aspects that haven’t been addressed yet and cause concern for developers.

  • Expiring Planning Consents – there has been a call for an automated extension of time on planning consents. The concept itself makes sense but a suggested length on an extension is more complex.
  • Permitted Development (PD) Rights – much like The Great Recession, we could see further PD rights to kick-start economic activity. With the growing likelihood that the high-street as we know it will never be the same again, we could see further amendments to retail – residential permitted development rights.
  • The High Street – The preference towards e-commerce has only been strengthened by COVID-19. What will the High Street look like in a post COVID-19 world? The Government need to manage repurposing of retail units, responding to need. (Further F+G article is being released on this point).

We are imminently expecting a Planning White Paper from the Government which should provide more clarity. It is possible we will also see an update to the National Planning Policy Framework to reflect the Governments new vision for the post-COVID-19 world.

The post-COVID-19 world develops on a day-by-day basis. We can anticipate short-term trends of embracing technology and focusing on the quality of our living spaces. The legacy of this virus is harder to predict. Will adopting the latest technologies remain at the forefront of business continuity? Or will we naturally revert to the old ways of working as lockdown takes a place in our memories that are inherently short-term?


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