Andy Meader, senior director for Pegasus Group, explains how COVID-19 has affected the planning system, appeals and Pegasus. 

As with most aspects of life, the epidemic has had an immediate impact on many parts of the planning system, and questions remain with regards to the longer-term effect.

While councils did have the opportunity to identify planning officers as key workers, most decided not to and, as a result, the vast majority of local authority planning staff are now based at home.

This, inevitably, has implications on how current applications can be processed with councils warning of likely delays. This is particularly true of applications that would typically have been considered at traditional planning committee meetings which just aren’t feasible at present. 

The Coronavirus Bill passed through the House of Lords on March 25 and included a clause allowing local authorities to undertake virtual meetings – planning committee meetings with members voting remotely.

We would expect all authorities to move towards this, albeit with some councils better placed than others in terms of IT capabilities.  In the meantime some councils, such as the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, have extended their delegated powers to enable more applications to be determined without the need to be heard at committee.

While most local authorities face a time of great upheaval, Buckinghamshire is more complex than most. Having confirmed the move to a unitary authority, the postponement of local elections this Spring has meant that while the new unitary will still commence on April 1, the current shadow authority members will now automatically become county councillors until May 2021, when the postponed elections will take place. In the meantime, any committee meetings are unlikely before June.

With regard impact on the ground, Pegasus Group had a number of schemes due for determination at various committees over the last week or so that are now in a limbo. Local Plan examinations and appeal inquiries and hearings have also been halted, understandably, along with site visits needed in written representations appeals.

While absolutely recognising the country, and indeed local authorities, have more pressing things to focus resources on immediately, the development industry will be fundamental to the country’s economic response to the crisis in due course. 

The quicker the decision-making process can adapt to the current and likely ongoing impact, the greater the economic bounce back is likely to be.

Pegasus Group have invested heavily in IT in recent times, and as a result are well equipped to function effectively away from the traditional office environment.  Whether companies such as Pegasus Group ever return to the traditional office environment is an interesting point for consideration, and it seems inevitable that working practices across the wider development sector will alter to some extent once we’re through the crisis.

Planning barristers have been undertaking trials over the last couple of weeks on virtual planning inquiries and hearings, with discussions now taking place within Government to understand how and when this could be implemented. 

Earlier this week a judicial review in the Planning Court was considered via an audio hearing using Skype, in which the technology worked well, indicating that more will follow. 

While such approaches are an immediate response to the current situation, they are very likely to impact procedures in the longer term.  It is fundamental to the planning system that all parties are allowed to express their views on development proposals, in support or opposition.  Any changes to procedure will need to ensure this opportunity still exists.

An immediate concern from some might be that not all members of the community are able to join in with a virtual debate, but the same could be said about traditional committees or inquiries due to health, accessibility or availability restricting people’s ability to get to a certain place at a certain time.   Change appears inevitable, but as anyone who is familiar with the planning process knows, change will often be contentious too.

It is clear that there is a desire from all sides to enable planning decisions to continue to be made, which, in turn, requires appropriate and needed development to take place, albeit the delivery of such schemes will also suffer inevitable delays. 

The coming days and weeks will identify those authorities who are keen and able to action the necessary changes swiftly, and those that might need greater persuasion.

See also: Planning – to find a way

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