Written by Mark Ketley, Director, BH Planning & Design

In light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, many industries are being required to adapt their approach in order to maintain a steady flow of activity. The planning industry is by no way an exception to this with working capacity for many organisations, including Local Authorities, during the pandemic understandably stretched. So, the question is, what happens next?

Proactive advice from Chief Planner for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), Steve Quartermain CBE, has been circulated and this has outlined a need for the planning system, and in particular decision-making on planning applications, to support the continuation of economic activity. Mr Quartermain’s letter identifies how the planning system can continue to function during this challenging period, encouraging innovative approaches by Local Planning Authorities to decision-taking, plan-making and consultation processes.

Following concerns surrounding the impact of COVID-19 and the capacity of Local Planning Authorities to prepare and progress Local Plans and support neighbourhood planning, all Authorities are being encouraged to work proactively with their communities and other stakeholders to ensure plans can continue to be progressed, even if modifications to current timetables are required. 

More importantly however is the potential effects on decision-making in relation to planning applications and the immediate economic impacts this could have, particularly with the suspension of Planning Committee meetings which could result in significant blockages in the system while we wait for Committee’s to reconvene in their traditional way. 

It is heartening to see the advice from MHCLG encouraging pragmatic approaches, flexibility and the utilisation of technology as much as possible to ensure that planning decision-making can continue. Virtual committee meetings are being encouraged and are already being actively trialled in some parts of the country, whilst the letter from Mr Quartermain also endorses the wider use of delegated powers for determining applications that would ordinarily require Committee consideration. Again, some Local Authorities are acting quickly on this advice and we are aware of at least two Council’s in the North East who are putting measures in place to determine the vast majority of applications, if not all, under delegated powers during this period.

Clearly it is still uncertain how long the requirements for self-isolation and social distancing will last, however, it is important for all professionals in the planning sector to ensure efficient and dedicated working in order to protect existing businesses, future development proposals and ensure subsequent economic recovery. 

In response to pressures placed on retailers in the essential items industries, the Government has moved quickly on adapting planning allowances. This quick response in early March gives both local and national providers of essential goods the flexibility needed in order to maintain the best interests of the public at this unprecedented time. In response to the closure of all pubs and restaurants for example, a temporary 12 month permitted development right has been introduced allowing these businesses to operate as hot food takeaways. This move not only helps to provide a vital food offer for local communities but also protects businesses, landlords and all of the businesses and people which feed into this industry. 

Strategic and efficient movements such as this are a prime example of the success which can be gained from quick adaptation and decision-making in our industry. Flexibility in approach to enforcement matters and restrictions imposed by conditions of planning consents is also being strongly encouraged with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, drafting a Written Ministerial Statement in an almost instant reaction to the challenges faced by retailers of food, sanitary and other essential items due to coronavirus. He said: 

“Given the exceptional challenges facing the UK from the coronavirus, it is vital that deliveries of food, sanitary and other essential products over the coming weeks can be made as quickly and safely as possible, minimising disruption to the supply chains on which our communities depend. The likely pressures on driver capacity mean additional flexibility is needed so that retailers can accept deliveries throughout the day and night where necessary.

“The National Planning Policy Framework already emphasises that planning enforcement is a discretionary activity, and Local Planning Authorities should act proportionately in responding to suspected breaches of planning control.”

Time will only tell what impact the Covid-19 pandemic will have on the future of our economy, however for now we can reflect and use the Government’s initial positivity as a milestone in these testing times. The planning profession has always been resilient in times of challenge and it is key to ensuring that economic activity is supported and can continue where possible. Now is the time to adapt and for the planning industry to work together in order to protect and support the economy, both throughout the crisis and the recovery period beyond it.