When the Coronavirus Act received Royal Assent last month, it opened the door to new modern ways of working in the planning industry by removing the legal requirement for planning committees to meet in person (secondary legislation required came in to force last week).
Whilst there has been a near universal move by local authorities to maintain officer services with a shift to home working and digital engagement, the same cannot be said for committee meetings, with councils up and down the country responding in different ways.
Firstly, there are councils such as Warrington, Leeds, Bradford and others who are opting to postpone meetings for several months. This approach is presumably being taken in the hope that by June onwards we should see a degree of relaxation of the social distancing measures that would allow these meetings to take place again.
There is perhaps also a hesitation from these local authorities that its not worth the risk of seeing major planning decisions challenged legally. However, feedback from the industry would suggest that any challenges are highly unlikely to be successful, as long as councils still provide an opportunity at the virtual committee meeting for communities to share their views.
Secondly, we are seeing that a number of local authorities such as Manchester, Trafford, Windsor & Maidenhead and Merton in London are opting to expand the system of officer delegation, encompassing a wider range of planning applications to keep decision making flowing.
Whilst detractors will suggest that this removes the democratic oversight in a planning committee, it is fair to point out that officers are being guided by policies created and approved by elected local councillors. At the same time, this move doesn’t remove any ability for members of the public or even councillors to submit comments on applications in the usual way.
However, with that being said it would appear that this approach is generally being taken by councils which already have a strong history of officer involvement in planning; and are robust in challenging councillors at committee meetings on refusing policy compliant schemes.
Finally, there is a large group of councils across the country who have already, or are in the process of, establishing an online form of planning committee meetings which can be said to stick as closely as possible to regular decision making in these challenging times. This group includes councils such as Somerset and many London Boroughs including Westminster, Hackney, Wandsworth and Richmond.
This has taken on either a quasi-digital form with councillors, observing social distancing in the same room and members of the community and applicants etc connecting through video conferencing; or completely virtual committee meetings with everyone dialling in remotely.
There are already signs that the system is working. Last week a scheme for 750 homes from Taylor Wimpey became one of the first to be approved by a quasi-digital committee in Waltham Forest. At the same time, this evening Kensington and Chelsea will hold one of the first fully virtual planning committees in England.
Whilst many developers have furloughed their staff, we are seeing some companies in the build environment looking further ahead. For example, Mace Group CEO Mark Reynolds recently opted to reopen the company’s construction sites stating “It is now clear that restrictions around social distancing are likely to be in place for many months – and so construction must find a way to work safely.”
Finally, it’s also worth noting that many developers have a decent cash surplus, which will allow them to purchase land at reduced prices in the near future and fill up the pipeline of sites again.
There is of course a long way to go with the lockdown and much talk of a recovery is predicated on seeing some social distancing measures being lifted by June. However, as we all ‘head off’ for our Easter break there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of the build environment sector.
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