Will planning stop and development be delayed?

By Michael HardwareDirector of Planning and Property 

The Government is escalating its response to the Coronavirus pandemic, encouraging a comprehensive voluntary lockdown. It has just closed all the schools and is running down the transport infrastructure. The development industry has been affected with many developers and consultants now working from home, and local councils in the process of deciding what they are going to do. But does this mean planning will stop and all development delayed?

There are three parts to the answer: the developers and promoters, the planning officers and the political decision makers.

Developers, promoters and their consultants are mainly working from home and appear adamant that their roles can continue and timetables for development will be unaffected. Many of our projects are continuing to existing programmes, perhaps even with greater zeal.

Many council planning officers are also now working form home and see little reason why their processes and responsibilities cannot continue as before. The only reservation could be access to records and files. Those accompanying planning applications tend to be large and difficult to download, view and manage at home, but technology does have solutions even here.

With the average age of councillors in 2018 being 59 years, with 43 per cent being aged 65 or over, quite a large proportion are now isolated. Generally, almost all council meetings have been cancelled, most up until annual meetings in May at the earliest. Most council facilities have also closed, with the focus online and with telephone contact centres to maintain services.

The one exception is planning, which has a legal role. Unfortunately, the law does not provide for virtual meetings – a quorum has to be made up of members physically present. Councils are opting for planning committee meetings to take place with just the quorum present, and usually of younger less-vulnerable members, together with a minimum number of officers.

If planning decisions are still going to be made, what about the planning process?

Consultation involving exhibitions and face-to-face engagement are not going to happen –consultants will, instead, have to rely on alternative channels of engagement to encourage residents to participate in consultations.

This potentially offers a real opportunity for greater involvement, and not just during the current crisis. A combination of enhanced direct mail and online tools will have to be deployed to reach residents and encourage them to give their views. The form of the consultation itself will also have to change. New online mediums will need to be deployed to ensure residents find and view the information they need to be able to give views. This could also include live webinars with consultants and interactive tools to enable residents to question them in real time.

How long is this all going to go on for? No one can answer that question but likely to be at least until the end of April or into May. The return to normality will be a gradual process as there will need to be an element of confidence-building before people feel safe to go back to their normal routines.

It may be that things will never be the same with the digital and enhanced online consultations continuing alongside the traditional exhibitions and face-to-face engagement resulting in a boost to consultation involvement.