Planners at Lichfields have given Thames Tap data they gathered on local authorities in the region as part of their research into how councils are adapting to online planning.
Lichfields, in partnership with the Planning Advisory Service, has developed a tool called Business as (un)usual, a live system which gives up to date information on councils nationwide.
It uses surveys, published data, and intelligence gathered through conversations.
In the Thames Valley (defined as Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire), Lichfields’ senior planner Sarah Watts established that:
- Around two thirds of local authorities are processing applications as normal, with a further 31 per cent able to, but with potential delays or limitations. Only one authority originally stated it was not able to validate applications altogether although this may have been a temporary measure.
- A third of authorities are operating ‘business as usual’ in meeting publicity requirements associated with applications, with a further 19 per cent requesting that some aspects be completed by the agent/ applicant. Forty-three per cent said there was some limitation in their ability to publicise applications with potential delays, and five per cent said they were severely limited and/or would explicitly not be determining applications.
- Continuing to make decisions will be key in keeping backlogs to a minimum and ensuring developments can progress quickly once restrictions ease. Currently, 27 per cent of planning authorities in the Thames Valley are relying under (sometimes enhanced) delegated powers, either to officers, the chief executives, the chair of the committee or any combination. The survey identified that just six per cent of councils have taken advantage of technology and continue to operate meetings through online platforms including Skype, Teams, Zoom and others and make decisions as usual. Lichfields anticipates this figure will increase.
- A total of 58 per cent of councils are still working on alternative arrangements for decision-making and nine per cent said that committee meetings were cancelled for the foreseeable future. It will be key that these authorities can get some arrangements in place, either through enhanced delegation or holding virtual meetings, to keep the development system moving.
- Keeping planning staff deployed and keeping to consultation timescales is likely to be difficult in the current climate, but this is key to keeping the system moving in the longer term. The Thames Valley has seen a reduction in planning staff for some authorities (with some staff being diverted to other COVID-19 responses) and some delays to Local Plans expected (around half of local authorities anticipate this). Around a third expect to continue as usual, many through the use of electronic consultations.
- Overall, the picture suggests few Thames Valley planning departments are expected to grind to a complete halt, although there are likely to be delays in many areas in processing and determining applications and a slow-down in plan making progress. South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse district councils have highlighted these anticipated constraints in a letter to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State, in which they request that statutory planning targets are suspended and adjustments made to five year housing land requirements.
The Lichfields tracker can be accessed at https://lichfields.uk/business-as-un-usual/#MAP.
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