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Well, that was a year.

Incredibly tough for many, different for everyone.

It’s been a non-optional experiment which has posed many questions: what happens if everyone just stays at home? How does society cope with instant change? Can anything be discussed as much as Brexit?

As we all move towards 2021 here is my take on the politics of planning in 2020.

Marching forward

As processes and procedures ground to a halt in March there were great strides made to keep the planning system moving.

A consortium of planning barristers lobbied and supported PINS to keep going, planning officers found ways of processing cases from their kitchen tables and project teams became familiar with each other’s homes as plans were progressed over Zoom.

Consulting shift

One of the most interesting from our perspective has been the increased shift to online focused consultations. I have been a long-term sceptic of the virtues of inviting those opposed to schemes to dusty village halls to spend afternoons arguing about building heights, parking and local sewerage capacity.

These conversations are of course important, but often miss the family who absolutely welcome the new school but are just too busy to traipse down to the public exhibition on a Saturday, or the young couple who would quite like to live in the area too but were working late that night.

Online tools are here to stay. Soon, hopefully, to be supplemented by meeting communities in person once again.

Public service broadcasting

Slightly more niche is my excitement to see local authorities finally broadcasting meetings. Apart from some notable exceptions, most authorities have for years carefully explained all the reasons why it was not possible to stream town hall meetings. It turns out it was completely possible.

Bravo to the officers and councillors who made virtual meetings happen and kept the decision-making processes live. Please don’t close the YouTube channel when committees can once again meet in the same room.

In an age where local journalism is on its knees these important debates have increasingly gone unnoticed until the results are felt months later. I recognise I am in a slither of a minority of people who care about this, but that minority has grown a little now these meetings can be enjoyed from the comfort of peoples’ own homes.

That these meetings are now more accessible has improved the calibre of discussion as councillors are more aware of a wider audience.

Another algorithm

Just before the launch of Eat Out to Help Out the government sought to raise morale in the development industry with a planning white paper.

The radical and innovative PDF set the direction for change – digitising the planning system, strengthening local plans and diluting planning committee prevalence.

It remains to be seen exactly what Planning for the Future will look like once it’s made its way through parliament.

With Dominic Cummings no longer moving fast and breaking things in Downing Street and shire Tories protesting at the unfairness of proposed new housing numbers, the radical future of planning may look quite similar to the system we all know and have mixed feelings about.

Build, build, build

After a hiatus for many sites at the beginning of lockdown the construction industry quickly picked up again, albeit with continued delays caused by supply chain disruption and new procedures to make sites Covid-safe.

The impact of economic fragility on build-out rates was partially addressed in July when the chancellor introduced a stamp duty holiday.

Eyes now look nervously to the holiday’s end in March. The chancellor’s budget in the spring will no doubt be the moment for any further support, whether an extension of the holiday or something different. By then we, and he, will have a better idea of how quickly the economy might rebound as the vaccine shaped light at the end of the tunnel grows larger – or at least we have a better idea of how far away that light is.

Devolution

Andy Burnham standing outside Bridgewater Hall in his Clark Kent specs will be an enduring image of 2020 regional politics.

The SNP, Plaid Cymru and regional mayors from across the country have all become much more visible throughout the pandemic.

We’ll begin to get a better idea of who was right and who was wrong as next year progresses. Next May will reveal what the electorate feel as they get a say on how they think their local leaders have performed.

Elections in Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales will further push the potential break-up of the union. As England’s regions too look to the ballot box, and the delayed white paper makes an appearance, devolution will stay high on the agenda.

Is it getting hotter?

One of the last times I was part of a crowd was watching Greta Thunberg on Bristol’s College Green. It followed what felt like a quickly rising tide of societal pressure to properly respond to the impending crisis.

Then the crisis was replaced.

Whilst we are still a very long way from any consensus as to how we respond to the climate change Covid-19 hasn’t entirely overshadowed the crisis for which there is no vaccine.

In some ways it’s helped speed up solutions. The great road closing, pavement extending, planter distributing experiment has been followed up with more policy and more money to help improve and expand some of the changes to make space for walking and cycling.

There remains a long way to go but 2020 has seen continued movement in the right direction. Business is recognising its role in creating positive social and environmental impacts and we’ve responded with a dedicated ESG communications offer.

The high street

The acceleration of high street decline is all too obvious. As the world reopens next year, we’ll get a better idea of who made it through and what the town centres of the late 20’s will look like.

The introduction of the E use class brings much needed flexibility. The recently announced consultation on permitted development of this class feels like something different to the carefully planned reduction in retail space we need.

Our high streets and town centres are going to change. We’ve known this for some time. Empowering communities to manage this change so these areas become places where more people live whilst maintaining their role as destinations must be the objective.

Looking to 2021

We’re not quite there yet and I dare say there’ll be more drama before we all disperse to join our festive bubbles, but it has been a year like no other. As always, the new year will bring new opportunities. 2021 will be an opportunity to learn from the experiment. To define the Covid-19 legacy. I’ll see you there.