Planning authorities will need to balance the need for transparency and public involvement against the requirement for action, according to planning consultant, Daniel Lampard.

Thames Tap asked some of the region’s leading planning consultants their thoughts on how the system – and the local and national authorities – have coped in the COVID-19 crisis so far. Few meetings and widespread homeworking have become the norm as councils seek to keep the system operating.

Mr Lampard, senior director and head of the Thames Valley office of Lichfields, illustrated what he called a typical can-do attitude of many, in a reply from a council leader stating ‘meeting time confirmed – medium TBC’.

That, he said, is essential in keeping the development sector going. Most planners we spoke to noted the Royal Borough as one of the boldest movers in delegating more decisions to the managing director and officers.

Mr Lampard said: “Ironically this adopts some of the suggestions put forward in the well-publicised Policy Exchange Think Tank paper (Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century) that councillors should have ‘no say over deciding applications for new development’.

Mr Lampard said planning authorities have been understandably reluctant to put up notices on planning application sites which trigger a 21-day consultation period.

He added: “This is likely to cause a bottleneck on new applications and further Government action may be necessary.”

Lichfields surveyed Thames Valley planning authorities and found, while approaches varied, all complied with Government guidance on public safety.

Further findings from Lichfields’ enquiries include:

  • Authorities have benefitted from online applications and payments
  • None has stopped registering applications although two in Oxfordshire have stalled for a week to embed new systems
  • Various tools available to staff working from home including video conferencing being rolled out rapidly, although using personal phones can be problematic
  • The formation of the single Buckingham authority on April 1 is continuing.

Mr Lampard said the South Bucks/Chiltern Local Plan Stage 1 Hearings will proceed with the initial matters by way of written representations and the Planning Bar has lobbied the Planning Inspectorate to argue that other hearings and inquiries can proceed by video conferencing etc.

He added: “Over the coming weeks, at a time of unprecedented upheaval and economic uncertainty, all local authorities will need to recognise that the planning processes cannot just stall and they will need to balance the need for transparency and public involvement with the need for action.  A number of Thames Valley authorities have made an encouraging start.”

Tim Burden, director at Turley, said: “In these strange times, it’s refreshing to see ingenuity and innovation within the planning system.

“At Turley we have long adopted flexible working, so have been able to continue our work as normal. This is, of course, more challenging for local planning authorities, and their exercising of their public functions.

“The Chief Planner has recently issued a letter calling for immediate action, innovation and pragmatism.

“Alongside this, the Coronavirus Act will allow for virtual committee meetings to be held (normally council meetings have to be held in public for transparency reasons), but we are already understandably seeing cancelling of immediate committee meetings, Local Plan examinations postponed and, obviously, all meetings with councils postponed.

“There is going to be a need to look at mid-term measures, such as allowing extensions of time to implementing permissions (powers to apply to amend planning obligations) and the ability to defer community infrastructure levy payments.”

He said there are virtual alternatives for public engagements but site notices remain a challenge.

He added: “As we move out of this period, it will be essential for the planning system to respond positively, give flexibilities to developers and kick start the economy.”

Karen Charles, head of Boyer’s Wokingham office said: “There can be no doubt that the coronavirus is one of the greatest challenges of modern times. This includes the planning system. 

“Councils, developers and consultancies have been particularly responsible during this period and are now working from home. 

“For most, this has been relatively seamless as this working practice was commonplace.

“Local planning authorities are committed to continuing to progress planning applications and to that end, there are some meetings taking place through conference calling. 

“A greater challenge is the formal decision-making process as face-to-face meetings (ie committee meetings) cannot currently take place. 

“For many, these meetings have been cancelled for the next month or so and therefore there will be a backlog when committees get back up and running. 

“For those more tech-equipped, it may be possible to hold virtual meetings and the Government is considering whether more decisions can be delegated. 

“These are exceptional times and all those involved including developers, local planning authorities, consultants and contractors are committed to keeping the wheels turning.  Only time will tell what impact this will have on the delivery of homes across the country.”

See also: Pegasus, the planning system and COVID-19

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