Planning will play key role in UK economic and social recovery

7 Apr 2020

Policy area: Planning

By Sam Bensted, Senior Policy Officer, British Property Federation

It seems strange that it was only three weeks ago that the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, was outlining the new government’s planning agenda in a statement to the House of Commons coupled with the publication of MHCLG’s policy paper – Planning for the Future – which provided more flesh on the bones to the new administration’s priority areas for planning reform.

Fast forward three weeks and the world seems a very different place.

The COVID-19 outbreak, over such a short period of time, is significantly changing how we live and work, with far-reaching social and economic implications for every community and all parts of the economy across the UK. The virus is also having an unprecedented impact on the UK property industry with the full impact unlikely to be clear for some time.  

The team here at the BPF has been working hard to understand the impact of the virus on the breadth of our membership as well as the implications for specific disciplines such as planning. On planning specifically, we submitted a discussion paper to MHCLG last week outlining the parts of the planning system that deserve immediate attention from the Ministry as well as a number of subsequent priority areas to help kick start a future economic recovery.

A top planning priority for us was that the Secretary of State get on with making the relevant regulations to allow Planning Committees to meet remotely – a delegated power afforded to him through the passing of the Coronavirus Act last week. Now that this has been granted, as equally important in the short term, MHCLG will need to provide the necessary support to local authorities in terms of resourcing and technology to enable this step change.

Changes today could speed up planning forever

MHCLG will also want to consider the relative success of the various planning-related measures and procedural adaptions that have been forced upon Local Authorities because of the virus outbreak.

The emergency legislation allows Planning Committees to meet remotely but only up to May 2021. Once the current crisis has waned, there will certainly be value in considering whether this measure (and indeed others) could be made permanent if the change proves effective in assisting with the government’s objective of speeding up the planning process.

Social distancing poses challenge to community engagement

A further issue that has emerged is, with the government’s current social distancing advice, the approach required to conduct effective community engagement – for example as part of a planning application or public consultation associated with updating a local plan. For instance, there are significant questions at the moment around the role of physical site notices in these times, with certain developers fearful that there could be a risk of challenge if the relevant Local Authority is considered not to have fulfilled its statutory duty to consult.

Indeed, how might members of a local community physically see a site notice when self-isolating?      

Planning system must not be stalled

Clarity from MHCLG on what constitutes effective stakeholder engagement is therefore necessary – it is essential that the planning system can keep ticking along by processing applications and that local plans are adopted in these uncertain times. Having both a sustainable supply of land ready for development (through an up-to-date local plan) and planning permissions ready to be implemented will undoubtedly form a critical part of the post COVID-19 economic recovery.

Further, in order to assist with the recovery, MHCLG should look at revitalising the presumption in favour of sustainable development – already within the NPPF but, in reality, often has little influence – to give greater weight to the contribution that development makes to meeting the country’s social and economic objectives.

The planning system unlocks the investment and development that underpins town and city regeneration, and this enables businesses to grow, new housing, jobs, productivity and social cohesion. Our message to government is clear – steps taken today to support the health of the planning system will ensure it can maximise the built environment’s role in the UK’s future success.