Industry Intel

Changes within the planning industry due to COVID-19

Over the last few months, I’m sure you’ve experienced huge changes in your daily lives and routines.

Within the Planning industry, we have also seen widespread changes across the public and private sectors. We have also felt the impact on businesses such as recruitment agencies and construction companies.

Since March, COVID has both limited the Planning system, as well as completely modernised it.

Changes within the planning industry

Local Authorities can now hold Planning Committees virtually. When the country was in lockdown, development slowed down massively due to no Planning Committees taking place at all.

Now that things are opening up again, the question remains: have these virtual committees made things more or less accessible? For some people, the answer is a resounding, yes – everything is now much more accessible.

People with childcare or transport issues can now be present when they would have struggled to take part before. However, a large number of the population do struggle with the technological side of things (myself included), which limits access to participation in some cases.

James Wilson, Interim Head of Planning at Kettering Borough Council, has noticed that “There was no increase in the level of delegated authority to determine applications and therefore the number of committees and their duration has had to increase as the number of applications going to the committees has remained the same but it takes longer to get through them at a virtual committee”

However, Mike Holmes, previous Interim Regeneration Manager at South Somerset DC thinks that they have increased accessibility to the public, due to attendance numbers no longer being limited.

Planning permission changes

A more recent reform introduced by Boris Johnson; the Build, Build, Build initiative, grants more freedom for developers to convert vacant and redundant buildings into homes without the need for Planning permission.

In an ideal world, this will mean that any unused shops can be turned into homes. Again in an ideal world, these would also be affordable homes. However, many are concerned that this could cause a rise in ‘micro-homes’ (homes that do not comply with Minimum Space standards), which have previously been criticised for being a superficial solution to solving the country’s housing crisis.

The initiative also states that two stories can now also be added to buildings without planning permission. Personally, I wonder if this a feasible shortcut to boosting the property market, or if it’s simply taking planning fees from already underfunded LPA’s?

Neeru Kareer, Assistant Director at L.B. of Barnet would seem to share my trepidation, saying “Additional PDR brings new administration pressure without the requisite extent of fees to compensate the resources required. We’re still considering to what extent upward extensions will be viable, but changes of use with a new Use Classes could inevitably lead to long-term consequences.”

Move towards a zonal planning system

The government are yet to make an announcement later this week, which is tipped to be a move towards a zonal Planning system. Mike Kiely, an Interim Planning Advisor commented that when the zoning system was previously used in England, it was too rigid and also very highly contested.

Neeru’s thoughts were also in line with this, saying that “The skills and knowledge around zonal planning and producing design codes is a major gap in public sector planning and will be a cash cow for planning firms.” Which brings up a further concern of how already over-budget LPAs will afford to keep up?

Home-working & local authorities

Not forgetting one of the most relatable changes, the introduction of home-working across the board. Any Local Authorities who previously preferred a more traditional approach have been forced to extend their capacity for home working to all temporary and permanent staff. Neeru Kareer thinks that “Management has turned more to a focus on Planners wellbeing during the lockdown.

The workload has not eased if anything it has intensified as we prepared for virtual decision making and adapting to new ways of working.” Mike Holmes also agreed with this, noting that there is more of an emphasis on making sure staff are tasked with a manageable caseload while still maintaining a work-life balance.

From the point of recruitment, the way we are all working will also change the way we are hiring, most notably when it comes to Interim staff. Previously constrained by distance and travel time when it came to contract roles, the net has now been drastically widened.

Throughout the lockdown and also now, as we are easing back into a ‘new-normal’, it seems as if the demand on LPA’s has remained steady. The government obviously sees Planning as a centre of the economic and social recovery from the effects of the lockdown.

The changes made to the Planning system, both official and unofficial, are moving our country in a very different direction from the way it was moving at the beginning of the year.

The way LPA’s are working has been completely modernised, with the potential for increased interaction from the public. However, official reforms from the government seem to be unfocused and are likely to bring about a large number of unintended consequences, which could impact us for years to come.

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