Will digital technology in planning be one of the legacies of Covid-19?

Will digital technology in planning be one of the legacies of Covid-19?

Delving into the impact that the outbreak will have on planners, Jonathan Bainbridge and Nigel Hawkey, planning partners at Bidwells, discuss whether the use of digital technology will be the way forward in the planning sector during Covid-19 crisis.

Planners in both the public and private sectors will find their work is massively disrupted over the next few months and the impact has been acknowledged in a letter from the chief planner to all English local authorities. 

As well as human impacts of the pandemic, there will be disruption to democratic processes. For example, while planning authorities currently only need three committee members to be quorate, they must be physically present.

However, Clause 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 gives the ability to make regulations for virtual meetings of local authorities, so that they can continue to proceed. We understand that it will apply until 7th May 2021 – this new way of working could therefore continue for well over a year.

We have already seen remarkable resilience and innovative use of resources available. City of Cambridge Council, Camden Council, The Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, Aylesbury Vale District Council and Central Bedfordshire Council to name a few, have quickly set up the ability to use video calls for pre application meetings via Skype, MS Teams and Zoom.

East Suffolk Council have stopped site visits and are considering options for site notices and consultations. However, officers are enabled for Skype audio meetings and conference calls.

Several authorities are now also giving officers significant powers of delegation, such as The Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead and Norwich City Council.

Where an application would previously have gone to Committee, officers will have to consult with the Chair or Vice Chair and, if they agree with the recommendation (or are unable to be consulted), then the application can be determined by officers. Use of processes such as this will become more widespread.

The Government is also enabling Councils (at their discretion) to designate planners as key workers, although many are now also being redeployed to frontline work.

There are also issues regarding plan-making. We are seeing timetables being delayed significantly, for example in North Herts and Chiltern/South Buckinghamshire – both areas with significant housing delivery challenges, where the EiPs have been postponed indefinitely.

In addition, on many sites under construction, or with outline planning permission, condition deadlines might be missed because of the pandemic. Bidwells is lobbying Government to seek a moratorium of at least six months on all such deadlines, to try and mitigate the impact.

Furthermore, with sites closing and work halting, there will be an increased shortage of homes, including affordable and key worker accommodation. This will affect future housing delivery test figures.

There is now updated PINS guidance on appeals and hearings, but the picture is changing rapidly. In a letter to Robert Jenrick, barristers at Landmark Chambers are challenging PINS’ suggestion that it “is not straightforward” to use technological solutions for appeals hearings. Clearly, these issues need to be resolved quickly.

Greater use of online or virtual public consultations could also become the new standard, although great care will be needed not to alienate those who are less confident with modern technology, or do not have access to it.

Greater use of digital technology in planning must be the way forward and will surely be one of the enduring legacies from the Covid-19 crisis. In the meantime, we must recognise that we’re all in this together.