David Lock: Town and Country Planning in the time of Covid-19
David Lock has worked in town and country planning for over three decades, during which time he has overseen countless projects. The outbreak of Covid-19 has impacted the planning industry in a range of ways. In an exclusive piece for The Parliamentary Review, Lock discusses how planning processes do not stop, even during a pandemic.
Planning and development activity has not stopped during the pandemic. Developers and landowners want permissions “in the bank” for when the economy gets moving. Local authorities want their Local Plans in place so that have more control locally, but the pandemic has brought about some changes in planning processes.
Virtual planning committee meetings, and delegated decision-making
Committees which decide applications for planning permission no longer have to meet physically. The reports of planning officers should be published in the normal way, but the actual meeting can be done via video conferencing. There is supposed to be provision for the public to watch proceedings, but it is not clear how objectors will be enabled to address the committee or ask or answer questions. There is no reaction yet, either, to the fact that those without access to digital communication are now shut out of the process.
The pandemic has also been the justification for delegating more decisions to officers. It saves officers time and shields them from a lot of lobbying. Government policy for speedy decisions, especially for housing, puts officers under pressure to say yes, especially when they are shielded from seeing objectors and local councilors. That gets worse when officers are overloaded because colleagues are self-isolating or working from home and even more shielded.
Meanwhile, although the charges for applying for planning permission are rising, the bargain is not holding during the pandemic. Planning authorities say they cannot register or process planning applications as quickly as before due to staff shortages and slow or nil responses from statutory consultees.
Relaxation of planning controls
The ability to change the use of office blocks and factories to housing as “permitted development” was controversial when introduced. Stock has been lost from the local pool of employment sites as housing uses are usually more valuable. Pressure groups were very anxious about housing being made out of unsuitable premises in unsuitable locations, and that has occurred – windowless “units” in former warehouses surrounded by a concrete yard; old office towers now filled with “units” without even a balcony.
During lockdown at home during the pandemic, people have become appreciative of their personal space in the house and garden, and proximity to local parks for exercise. There is acute sensitivity about the fact that so many families are couped up in tiny rooms with no external space at all. Awareness of this discrepancy will not go away and be exacerbated as it dawns that is poorer people who are more exposed to Covid -19 because of the work they do and how and where they live. Much more housing is needed, and that is understood, but not of any type, anywhere.
Local plan-making disrupted
Councils have generally been slow at making their statutory Local Plans, especially in Green Belt areas where the popular misconception was the presence of a permanent protection against development. Being required to find enough housing land to meet local needs now drives the system. Sadly, the final stages in plan-making, in which a ministry inspector comes to check on its “soundness” – the fit with national government policy – has been disrupted by the pandemic.
The planning inspectorate has cancelled, or postponed hearings and inspectors are experimenting with virtual hearings with differing degrees of enthusiasm. Months of delay in local plan-making is being caused. The “evidence base” for a local plan gets out of date; local elections change local political preferences, objectors get mobilised, and developers’ lawyers become wilier in the tangles that ensue. Here the statutory planning system is getting into a real mess, and some pragmatic leadership from the ministry is hoped for to stop the Inspectorate from bringing everything to a halt.
Longer time strategies for city regions or clusters of towns
The forward planning gap left by the abolition of regional spatial strategies is, in the most pressured areas, beginning to be filled. With ministry encouragement and offers of cash support through its Homes England agency, groups of previously quarreling local authorities have begun to make joint strategies looking 30 years ahead or so. West Oxfordshire is an exemplar, with public consultation having taken place, and only a bit of leverage from the ministry was needed to keep serial recalcitrant South Oxfordshire in the fold. The West of England joint authorities, on the other hand, are still deeply split.
Milton Keynes, in the centre of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc, has chosen a different path. It launched a draft strategy to 2050 with low key consultation, quite outside the planning system as a “voluntary” project but has not been able to carry any of its neighbouring authorities along with it. Sooner rather than later the Milton Keynes work will have to be shown the full light of day, and neighbouring councils leveraged into jointly refining it.
There are versions of joint strategic plan-making in other parts – North and South Essex comes to mind, as does parts of Hampshire, but joint working is fragile when the underlying tension is the need to expand a city’s influence into areas, especially where the city’s influence is considered intrusive. During the pandemic, this strategic work continues, but much more out of sight from the public. Until the necessary leadership can be mobilised we have an hiatus – the public is not being brought along with the issues and the strategic planning choices.
Overall, it might be thought planning was asleep during the pandemic. It isn’t, but some of the necessary shortcuts are not wholesome long term and will need to be reversed; there is now widespread awareness of the horrid housing conditions that we have been creating in the drive for speed and “units” rather than quality homes; and the necessary long range planning work has mostly slipped behind a veil, politically, and will surprise the people when it eventually lurches into full public scrutiny.