Business as (un)usual – how is the planning system holding up?

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Business as (un)usual – how is the planning system holding up?

Business as (un)usual – how is the planning system holding up?

Bethan Haynes 27 Apr 2020
Like the country as a whole, the planning system finds itself in an unprecedented situation. The position is changing fast, but our live COVID-19 tracker provides us with an initial view on how local planning authorities across England, Wales and Scotland are responding to the crisis: it shows variations in pace of response, but on the whole the picture is positive.
This blog provides a summary of what is happening on the ground. Our tracker has a 90% coverage of LPAs, but please note that any figures relate to the percentage of authorities who provided a response to specific questions, and not all answered all questions. Analysis is based on data collected between 16th and 24th.
Lichfields has partnered with the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) which will be engaging with Councils on their COVID-19 response, including on updating the position with individual LPAs.

Getting started – validating applications

Half of authorities say they are able to validate applications on a ‘business as usual’ basis, and a further 41% said they can with limitations and/or delays. Many emphasise that the best way to minimise delays is for applicants to submit is electronically. Only 2% of authorities state they are unable to validate applications altogether, but it is possible that this will change. Overall, this is a positive picture for applicants in almost all areas.

Going public – publicity requirements

There are a number of ways authorities fulfil their statutory duty to publicise and consult on planning applications – those already operating a primarily electronic-based process mostly report little or no impact on procedures and are operating business as usual. In fact, nearly half– 45% - are again operating on a ‘business as usual’ basis. For those which expect some disruption, it is possible that this will improve over time as Councils get more clarity around the regulations and come up with workable solutions. One common solution – in place in almost one-fifth of Councils (and entirely consistent with the legal requirement) – is to request that applicants/agents put up site notices, which will inevitably help keep the application process ticking along.

Decisions, decisions – committees and decision-making

With increasing numbers of Councils already using online platforms to stream their committee meetings, undertaking these virtually has become the natural solution for many, including Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter and Liverpool. Other Councils have opted for delegation to officers (or selected/senior officers) with some input from members (so called ‘Delegation +’).
In time, it is likely that most other authorities will have moved to ‘virtual’ committees, and we can expect increased certainty on decision-making protocols in the near future from those where firm plans are not yet in place. Key matters to be resolved will be how far Councils accommodate their previous practices for members of the public to speak at committee as well as to view proceedings.

Getting personnel – redeployment

Our research finds that in most Councils, all or the vast majority of planning staff are remaining in their roles. Over half of Councils have not yet redeployed any planning staff, but in a small number of areas this was under review. One third of Councils have redeployed 25% or less of their planning staff, and others have redeployed some staff on a voluntary and/or part-time basis. Again, this is an overall positive picture for planning teams, as the majority of Councils maintain most if not all of their staff presence.

Looking to the future – local plans

The effect on plan-making will depend heavily on what – if any – consultations are planned for the near future, and how consultations are currently carried out. Of authorities which do have consultations planned, it is approximately a 50:50 split between those expecting business-as-usual and those expecting delays. For authorities reliant on public (in person) consultations, a move to online consultations will inevitably help minimise delays, but this could carry both practical and political issues.

Final thoughts

We are now inevitably in a period in which Councils are ironing out new procedures and working arrangements – much as the business community has been doing - but many appear to be operating planning services on a ‘business as usual’ basis. Many already have the technology in place to support home-working, processing applications and decision-making, and these systems need only be extended or implemented to allow continuation of business. The situation is no doubt helped by the fact that most planning departments appear to have retained most, if not all, of their staff. The overall picture is a positive one, which will likely improve in time, helping keep (albeit, at a somewhat slower pace than usual) the planning system moving.