The Welsh Government is clear, ‘It is vital that planning services play a full part in responding to the current health emergency and making preparations for recovery’.
It’s not the first time that you will have read over the past couple of weeks that we are in uncharted territory. The foundations of our country have been disrupted beyond comprehension and we are faced with challenges few of us could have imagined. There is worry, pain, loss and perspective and the priority for everyone must be to protect the health of individuals and their communities. The planning system is going to be stretched and resources will be diverted. However, we must also look beyond the immediate crisis to provide foundations for the future.
RTPI research published in 2018 found that during the financial year 2016/17 planning created an all-Wales value of circa £2.35 billion
. It included the provision of 558 direct FTE jobs in Local Planning Authorities, enabled the creation of 7,146 FTE jobs, generated £4.5m of business rates per annum and contributed £130 million to infrastructure and education through off site S106 and CIL contributions. The importance of the planning system to the economy cannot be understated.
In a week where we have seen calls for the planning system to be paused, we have also seen leadership. The Welsh Government has been proactive in providing guidance
to local planning authorities to help them continue with their work; to recognise that there will need to be some urgent amendments to the regulations to allow changes to current requirements; and, to help local authorities quickly understand their positions in terms of local development plan
We have also seen a number of local planning authorities taking active steps to keep applicants, agents and the development industry abreast of how their teams will be operating for the foreseeable future. The majority are pressing ahead, recognising that there is a need to keep the cogs turning. Many officers are mobilised to work from home, applicants are being strongly encouraged to submit applications and fees online, neighbour notifications will continue and there are means to erect site notices. LPA’s are making better utilisation of photographs and aerial imagery and are being helpful in the arrangement of meetings through tools such as Skype and MS Teams. Paving the way for other LPAs to follow, Pembrokeshire County Council has agreed to delegate all planning applications to officers.
Clearly there will be challenges; officers have loved ones and families to support at home, carrying out site visits will be more difficult and there will need to be some thought to ensuring that communities can engage in the development process. We are all adapting to different ways of working. However, these are not insurmountable. England has already made regulations that allow the holding of remote committees. These came into force on Saturday 4 April. We hope that the Welsh Government will be as equally swift.
Now more than ever we need to think innovatively to keep the planning system operating. We need to do this to:
- Maintain the best development management services that local planning authorities can, so that applications are still validated, conditions on those that are approved can be dealt with and discharged and current applications can be determined;
- Avoid survey data becoming out of date – this is particularly important for ecology surveys on larger projects with sensitive ecology baselines;
- Ensure that a backlog of applications does not build up to the extent that LPAs are overwhelmed well beyond the ‘Stay at Home’ period;
- Ensure that contractual obligations between developers, landowners and funders are met; and critically to,
- Ensure that the impacts arising from the current crisis are minimised as far as possible to allow individuals, organisations and communities to start building again at pace.
The planning process plays a crucial part in the development industry. It is key to the economy and to reinstating those jobs that may be furloughed or lost jobs and to creating new ones, once the economy begins to recover – as it surely will. Planning permissions granted now will lead to a faster recovery period once the lockdown has passed.
It is exactly the time for the Welsh Government to continue leading and ensuring that local planning authorities have the legal frameworks in place to adapt to this new world and for the planning system to keep its cogs turning. It is exactly the time for the local planning authorities to respond proactively to the challenge by supporting their residential and business communities and to ensure that we are in a strong place to weather the storm that we are in.
Now is not the time for the planning system to grind to a halt.
 RTPI Value of Wales Planning Toolkit 2018