The Planning System is more than just a regulatory framework; it is arguably the engine room of our country’s economic prosperity, driving forward new developments and regeneration projects across our urban areas.
Clearly we’re operating in extraordinary times and, while the effects of COVID-19 are impacting all aspects of our daily lives, it’s essential that we continue to bring sites forward throughout this crisis to ensure that we emerge in the strongest-possible position.
The current status
Local planning authorities, like many other organisations, are facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Already constrained resources have been redirected to support front line efforts in fighting the disease, while those responsible for maintaining the status quo are adapting to completely new ways of working.
Following emergency legislation which gained royal assent on the 25 March 2020, the Planning Inspectorate announced that all casework events had been postponed but that it was looking into the use of technology, such as video conferencing, to enable it to continue running planning inquiries and hearings online. It is also still accepting appeals via its Appeals Casework Portal.
However, as if the situation wasn’t problematic enough, the technology in question remains largely untested by many local planning authorities and there are also strict statutory obligations that must be adhered to in order to ensure that planning committees remain as transparent and robust as possible. For example, if a committee member’s broadband was to drop out at any point during the virtual inquiry then their vote would be null and void.
A pragmatic approach
Despite these operational challenges, some local planning authorities reported their highest number of planning permissions at the end of March when the lockdown commenced than in the last year, indicating that they are very much open for business.
However, with limited resources at hand the industry needs to maintain a flexible yet pragmatic approach, with the focus being on bringing those strategic development sites which have the greatest potential to accelerate economic recovery and wellbeing forward.
Local planning authorities, developers and their consultants will therefore need to work together to help streamline and de-risk the decision making processes so that construction can get back on track as soon as lockdown restrictions are lifted.
How we can we help?
Extending permissions: Once planning consent has been granted, a developer generally has three years to implement it. Under ‘exceptional circumstances’, we can secure amendments to pre-commencement planning conditions to allow development to proceed in accordance with planning legislation, and keep permissions alive where possible.
Technical information: Site visits are an important part of the planning process. However, with social distancing measures likely to be in place for some weeks, if not months, we’re able to make use of the array of information at our fingertips to support planning applications, including Google Earth, Google Maps, drone footage, high quality drawings and photos, as well as providing detailed planning and design statements.
Planning gains: Affordable housing obligations and s106 agreements are a bone of contention for most developers and are often a major source of delay in the planning process. While permission can technically be granted prior to a s106 agreement being signed, we can negotiate, amend and agree contributions on your behalf prior to virtual planning committee, thereby de-risking the permission.
Future proofing developments: The economic landscape has changed dramatically since the vast majority of permissions were granted. Knowing whether the development still stacks up financially, socially or environmentally is critical to future decision making. We can review the feasibility and deliverability of a scheme and provide comprehensive pricing advice in order to assess the maximum Gross Development Value (GDV) and anticipated Total Development cost (TDC).
Re-purposing existing accommodation: With many retail, leisure and hospitality premises now sitting vacant, occupiers and landlords are desperately seeking ways to maintain cash flow. Using Permitted Development Rights we can advise on a temporary change of use to transform space into that which is more viable in the current economic climate.
Stakeholder engagement: The role of technology in reaching those stakeholders who might be interested in the development and enabling them to make representations will be crucial. We are able to make wider use of social media platforms and webinars complemented by traditional methods such as direct mail or print advertising.
A new normal
While the use of technology in the planning process is currently considered a temporary solution, once the country has come out of the other side of this pandemic, the question must be asked as to whether any or all of the revised approaches will be retained. Our view is that they should as, not only will it help to ease the burden on local planning authorities in addressing the backlog of applications that is likely to have built up over the coming weeks and months, it is clearly a more efficient and effective way of making planning decisions.
This situation and Government guidance is evolving daily and we will continue to provide a range of viewpoints over the coming weeks and months to dive deeper into the “new normal” and how we can help the economy and the development industry recover from this unexpected downturn.
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In the meantime, should you have any specific concerns or requests please don’t hesitate to get in touch and we will do our utmost to provide you with the best advice during these unprecedented times.
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