Industry Intel

Misconceptions of Planning During Covid: Debunking the Myths

Whether it’s people believing that George Washington had wooden teeth or that sunflowers always face the sun, misconceptions are everywhere.

Even with Coronavirus, the widely believed information is not always correct. In this article, we won’t be getting into the science behind the virus but instead tackling some of the common misconceptions surrounding the Planning Industry.

“Most Authorities still haven’t been set up for full home-working”


While many authorities experienced struggles at the start of lockdown, with arranging suitable I.T solutions and home-working arrangements, most now are fully set up with software such as Office 365 and Microsoft Teams. Most Authorities have a complete remote set up, with only socially distanced site visits being the only reason members of staff need to leave their homes for work.

Mella McMahon, Business Transformation Manager at Gloucester City Council, explained the efforts they went to in order for their staff to be able to work from homes without any issues.

“We have put a lot of time and effort into our IT infrastructure, especially over the last 18 months to make sure our Planning staff have excellent laptops, software that works and means we can all stay in contact easily. There is currently no need for officers to come into the office as it’s working so well and we are able to do virtual site visits for a high proportion of cases.”

This is a view which is also backed up Alan Coleman, Development Management Lead at Worcester City.

“The City Council quickly rose to the challenge of remote working across all of its functions to enable all staff to work safely from home and that many of the practices that have evolved will now be adopted to enable a truly flexible workforce.”

“Planning departments are very quiet right now”

I think most managers wish this was true!

It isn’t though, most authorities are reporting that they are actually busier than they were before lockdown! While on average, most authorities experienced a 15% to 25% drop in applications at the start of lockdown, most are now reporting an increase. Especially in the smaller applications.

Rebecca Miller, Principal Planning Specialist at Somerset West and Taunton Council, details the change in working levels over the last few weeks.

“We haven’t really experienced a drop in applications at all during all this, the applications just keep coming, it seems that where people are working from home more and more, they are really keen to add to their homes in order to create more space for families or working. We are busier now than we were a few months ago.”

This is a view which is again backed up by Alan Coleman, he continued…

“Whilst there was undoubtedly a downturn in applications at the outset of the pandemic, I am pleased to say the application levels are now on the increase as we rise to the challenges of recent and proposed changes to the planning system.”

Matthew Diamond, Principal Project Manager at Exeter City Council agreed with Alan.

“Covid slowed the process slightly for the first month or so of lockdown, but now it’s pretty much back to normal.”

“Covid has slowed everything about the Planning process down”

This is a very popular misconception but is still incorrect. Most authorities are reporting that their turn-around time on applications is matching what it was before Covid. The increased use of technology is helping, with virtual committees now running regularly and smoothly, which just a few months ago would have been crazy to think about! It seems that after an initial steep learning curve, authorities are embracing the new techniques and are reaping the rewards with increased efficiency.

Chris Murray, Head of Strategic Planning at Hampshire County Council, agrees and explains Hampshire County’s current position.

“Hampshire County Council has continued to process planning applications with no significant delay to decision making with application numbers and associated work similar to pre-Covid levels. Virtual Planning Committee meetings have been successfully held on line ensuring that decisions have been made in a timely manner.”

Matt Dickins, Head of Policy at East Devon District Council agrees with Chris with regards to the speed of the processes.

“Plan and policy making continues as before and in recent weeks, for our local plan, the emphasis has been on speeding up rather than slowing down.”

Tracey Crews, the Director of Planning from Cheltenham, is extremely positive about the speed of the Planning process.

“Completely disagree, (that Planning has slowed down) we were already well underway with business change, looking at ways we could improve service delivery. This has continued through the lockdown period, particularly with the enhanced embracing of technology. The Planning Reform White Paper places digital front and centre, so we will see greater online capabilities as best practice is shared more widely nationally. The planning team have responded well and contributed with their own ideas and creativity to adapting to our new normal”

“Local Authorities have no money and therefore are not looking to recruit”

This is far from the case, many authorities are choosing this time to bring on-board new members of staff as they take advantage of new candidates coming onto the market. We are finding an up-turn in jobs over the last few weeks and expect these to rise through September.

Chris Murray adds that Hampshire County would be looking to keep Planning topped up with enough resources.

“Whilst all Local Authorities will be impacted financially by the pandemic, the Council is looking to maintain resources in the Planning team to deal with statutory and traded work.”

Tracey Crews from Cheltenham, mentions again that Cheltenham are prepared and ready to recruit if they need too.

“It would be naïve to say local authorities are not under financial pressure. Councils have responded at a pace to support their communities in the response to COVID whilst making sure business, as usual, continues to operate successfully. The government financial settlement is still to be clarified in terms of detail. However, in Cheltenham, our high-quality services continue to be delivered and if the need arises for staff resourcing this is reviewed on a case by case basis”

I hope this shows that the feeling from clients in Local Authorities right now is one of positivity and that Planning is moving in the right direction as the UK recovers. Oyster is at the forefront of the Planning market. If you are in the position of looking for a new role then please do get in touch.

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