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Planning in the UK with COVID-19

20 April, 2020

By Ian Tant, CAP Vice-President

The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic required measures to be introduced through the Planning systems (each of the UK nations has its own system) to ensure that the planning system continues to function and to respond to urgent pressures.

As with many Commonwealth countries, the Corona virus COVID-19, started to make itself felt around the end of February and into early March.  As the number of cases rose, UK Government measures went from the advisory – washing hands frequently, bumping elbows in greeting, standing 2 metres apart – to the compulsory by the 24th March.  Whilst not using the word “lockdown”, the measures introduced by the Government came close to this with the instruction to “Stay at home; save lives; protect the National Health Service”.  It is still possible to leave home but only for essential purposes – food shopping (as infrequently as possible), daily exercise, journeys to work only for those who cannot work from home. Traffic is still on the roads but at much reduced levels; flying has almost come to a halt; and many, many firms have moved their staff to home working.  Video conferencing has spiralled.

Measures have also been introduced through the Planning systems (each of the UK nations has its own system) to ensure that the planning system continues to function and to respond to urgent pressures, for example giving blanket planning permission (known as permitted development rights) for restaurants to convert to take-away outlets and for the creation of new medical facilities – including the conversion of major conference venues in cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow to new hospitals.

In local government, planning applications continue to be submitted and are being processed.  Site visits are allowed provided applicants and others stay away from the officers while on site to observe social distancing.  Importantly, decisions are being made, either through increasing delegation to chief officers or through remotely-attended planning committees: in England the Government has introduced new legislation that allows councils to hold meetings remotely.

The Royal Town Planning Institute has responded speedily in its own procedures – indeed, it was ahead of the Government in introducing its measures.  All travel by volunteers was suspended on the 2nd March, initially until late April but now until the 31st August.  Early orders were made for the purchase of additional laptops and for software licences with the result that all staff were enabled to work from home with only a strictly limited attendance at the headquarters office in London to maintain essential services, including information technology.

Once the emergency measures were put in place and everyone was safely at home, attention turned by late March to the ‘new business as usual’.  This not only involves maintaining regular member services but also developing thought leadership on what should happen in planning now and into the coming years.  A member survey was instigated to understand how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting Planning and what our members wish to see the Government doing next.

There has been regular liaison between the Chief Executive and Government representatives with suggestions and proposals for measures to protect the planning systems and to deliver positive outcomes.  One example is the proposal that the life of planning permissions (normally limited to 3 years) should be extended during the crisis so that development can continue to be delivered post-COVID.  The measure has already been introduced through legislation in Scotland and may be spread throughout the UK soon.

But increasingly attention is turning to the medium and longer term.  There is a recognition that it is not only the RTPI that is facing a ‘new normal’ – many patterns of living and working will have been affected.  Some of these changes are highly positive and are likely to have a lasting effect.  The use of internet conferencing and home working is a clear example of a positive effect: travel is much reduced with consequential environmental benefits in air quality and noise levels.  For those of us living under airport flight paths, the sudden awareness of bird song has been startling!

But there are other consequences: broadband availability and bandwidth has been severely tested.  Notably, even the Automobile Association has suggested that as a nation we should be investing further in broadband capacity rather than in roads.  Moreover, there is a  recognition that not all our homes are suitable places for families to be ‘locked’ within.  Small flats with limited or no amenity space are proving particularly problematic, especially where urban parks have been closed or where social distancing limits access to play space.

How will we adapt to the likely loss of retail outlets?  Some of our town centre and high street businesses may not return post-COVID and there will be a task in remodelling our town centres – especially if demand for office space is permanently affected by the increased levels of home working.

Planning has an important role to play in reshaping our town and city centres and in debate over improved space standards for housing.  We will need to resist calls for lower densities and a return to the suburbanisation of housing: there remains a real emergency in climate and biodiversity while rapid urbanisation is likely to remain a feature around the world. As Planners we need to redouble our efforts to ward off deregulation and to argue the benefit of good design of our homes, buildings and places to enable us to adapt to any future pandemics.

Now is the time to rethink our approaches and to prepare for a positive future once the crisis has passed.

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