Could we be doing more to keep the planning system moving?

March 2020 must have been the longest month in history. As it began, terms like “lockdown”, “social distancing” and “self-isolation” belonged in a dystopian drama, but just a matter of days later (though it feels like 293), they’re the rules we live by.

Change has been rapid and we’re all struggling to keep up – the planning system is no exception to that. At some stage, though, we will start to return to something approaching normal and development will have an important role to play in re-starting the economy.

Ensuring the planning system continues to operate so that there are sites to develop should be central to the government’s efforts to keep the economy ticking over.

The initial challenge was how decision making could be allowed to continue. Planning committee meetings have been universally cancelled, the gathering of a large group of people no longer safe.

But how to replace it?

Although the Coronavirus Act made virtual planning meetings possible – prior to that councillors had to be physically present to lawfully make decisions – not all authorities are equally well set up to work in that way. The imperative to make decisions – not just on planning applications but on all sorts of other things – will no doubt mean they catch up quickly, but there will inevitably be a hiatus. Some councils have introduced more liberal schemes of delegation, allowing officers to make decisions in consultation with just one or two councillors, for example, to try to keep things moving. They might not have the appetite to do that for more contentious application, though.

The appeal system has stopped too with inquiries being postponed. The Planning Inspectorate is also working on ways to use technology to allow appeals to continue, but that too will take time.

As a short-term fix, consideration is being given to which appeals can be determined by written representations instead. Appellants won’t warmly welcome that – appeals are more likely to be allowed through inquiry, especially when the points at issue are nuanced – but may see it as the least-worst option compared to a delay of uncertain duration.

As those initial problems start to be tackled, a second set of less obvious, more practical challenges is starting to appear. For example, some local authorities are claiming they can’t start consultation on planning applications because they can’t put up site notices. It is difficult to see the reasons for this – displaying a site notice requires one person and is most definitely work that can’t be done at home, making it the type of activity that can still be carried out. It is also harder still to see who would be prejudiced if a site notice wasn’t displayed – we’re all supposed to be indoors anyway, so the usual letter notification to neighbouring properties should be enough.

Consultation on draft local plans have also been delayed by various authorities. Again, it is difficult to see why that need be the case – so much consultation is carried out on-line now responses can be prepared from the comfort of people’s own homes. With some having more time on their hands than they would like, it might even result in more responses than usual.

That isn’t to criticise those authorities – we’ve all had debates about “essential” versus “non-essential” activity. Rather they are procedural points that need addressing by the government. Some temporary guidance from the Secretary of State as to what can and can’t be done while these restrictions are in place would be very welcome in keeping the wheels turning.

There are more challenges in store for the future too. With many house builders stopping construction activity – while the government has said they can continue, there is little point when the government have also said people should avoid moving house – delivery rates are likely to plummet. That will, in time, impact on the five-year housing land supply and housing delivery test results for many authorities. Failure on either measure can lead to local plan policies been set aside as the presumption in favour of sustainable development is triggered.

It seems unfair for that to happen to local authorities solely because of the current crisis. In time, therefore, we may say the government offer some temporary relief from those requirements. That needs to be carefully done – simply setting them aside would potentially penalise applicants in those boroughs which were already failing on one or both delivery metrics before coronavirus hit. A more balanced approach would be to exclude the time-period while restrictions are in place from calculations.

Of course, the government may also decide to do nothing, judging that the temporary liberalisation of the planning system that would result would help bolster the country’s economic recovery.

It will also be fascinating to see which of those changes intended to be temporary end up being permanent. The use of technology in decision making – for both planning committees and planning appeals – seems a strong candidate for that. It is a much more efficient way of conducting business and can result in greater transparency – more people may be inclined to watch meetings online than drive to the town hall to watch them in person.

We’re all doing our best to adapt to a rapidly changing situation and while the outlook is uncertain we can say one thing with confidence – we’re going to see lots more change over the coming works as the planning system gradually works out how to keep moving.

Paul Smith, Managing Director, The Strategic Land Group