Blog: 6 April 2020Will necessity be the mother of invention for the planning industry?

Jane Piper

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Jane Piper

Planning Director

Southampton office

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It is only two weeks since schools were closed and nearly two weeks since the PM announced lockdown. For those working at home and trying to home school your children, it probably seems a lot longer! Yet within this very short timescale, the construction industry is almost at a standstill already. Building sites are closing, despite the government saying they can stay open; applications and site promotions being reviewed and potentially delayed. Everyone going into financial lockdown and maybe even furlough.

Conversely local authorities are having to find ways of dealing with critical issues, sometimes drafting planners into other more priority areas of council business; cancelling council meetings; reprioritising having to adapt to everyone working from home, stretching both their technological skills and servers. But, in these circumstances, how do you serve your community? Your Members? How do you hold the meetings necessary to keep the wheels of local government turning?

On 24 March, in his last letter to local authorities, the Chief Planner Steve Quartermain made it clear that councils should explore every opportunity to use technology to ensure that the planning system remains functioning so that discussions and consultations can go ahead. He encouraged councils to consider delegating planning committee decisions where appropriate, which some authorities have been quick to arrange and do.

With the royal assent of the Coronavirus Act on 25 March 2020, s78 allows council committee meetings to be held virtually until May 2021. The Statutory Instrument that governs such remote meetings came into force on Saturday (4 April) so it is assumed that decision-making by committee will resume swiftly. We are seeing and hearing evidence to suggest councils are gearing themselves up for this.

Much of this is helped by showing how it can work - here at Barton Willmore, we have already been involved in helping councils carry on their normal business by facilitating virtual meetings as well as securing support for a virtual public exhibition.

As the largest industry in the UK, it is vital that the construction industry keeps going over the next few months, so that when we are able, we can continue to address the housing crisis and much needed development. The planning system is a significant part of that process and cannot be switched on and off quickly. This is something the government has recognised over the last few years with the introduction of 5 year land supply test, the Housing Delivery Test, and the need to have up-to-date local plans. This is further emphasised by Planning for the Future’s suggested deadline of December 2023 for completion of all local plans in England.


After the last couple of years of uncertainty due to Brexit, just as there were green shoots of recovery, the last thing the industry - and the economy - needs is the planning system coming to a standstill for a few months, just as councils were getting to grips with providing for their housing need. It will take the industry many months to regain its momentum from a standing start. Whilst people may be in lockdown, let’s not put the planning system into lockdown as well.  Far better to ensure we can still move forward: pre-application discussions still need to happen; applications and appeals need to be progressed and determined, legal obligations agreed and local plans taken forward, without significant delay. We are hopeful that councils will not use this as an opportunity to seek extensions of time to housing delivery or to local plan timescales.

As an industry we can do things differently, to use more technology, to find better, more interactive ways to engage, but this will provide an opportunity to engage with the silent, reluctant majority - the whole community - not just the vociferous few. New community groups are being set up daily; more and more community people are connecting hourly. Who knows, some of these new approaches may be permanent improvements to how we create new places and champion change.  Soon online engagement will not only be expected but will become the norm, just like working remotely is already.

There will be a need for a whole raft of responses from the government, banks, councils and others in the forthcoming months to give the industry the confidence it needs to pick up the pace of housebuilding again and deliver the housing this country needs. In the meantime, however, those developers that continue to promote sites will be the ones that win. Not promoting sites or doing the bare minimum will leave many questions unanswered as to whether sites can be delivered etc. Opportunity exists for housebuilders, promoters, housing associations and even councils to move forward and present themselves as those that can deliver.

There may be early issues with collecting data (traffic data, etc) but there are always ways around that, for example, using older data and sense checking it later or ensuring such surveys continue whilst maintaining physical distancing. Maybe there is even an argument for going back to planning basics? Do you remember when an allocation was planning in principle; an outline application did not comprise of 70+ documents and reserved matters/detailed applications were just that? Maybe we should be using permission in principle more?

Planning was borne out of addressing critical public health issues and planners have been finding ways to address the consequences of war, large scale population increases and economic cycles for decades. Maybe this latest crisis is an opportunity for the industry to demonstrate how it can evolve deliver what the country needs? Let’s share ideas, thoughts, new ways and approaches, and find a way.

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas…

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Lets Find a Way, Planning for the Future, Construction, UK Housing, Covid-19, #letsfindaway