We are living in strange and interesting times. But in all this uncertainty, we can take some comfort in the fact that the planning system is no stranger to adversity.
Town and Country Planning was born out of a crisis that literally flattened the country. After the first world war, we needed to rebuild our society, both literally and economically. The huge national and collective effort required to achieve this gave us our first Town & Country Planning Act in 1947.
Resilience was built into our profession from the start. Effecting change is, after all, the fundamental purpose of what we do. Less than a week into our new normal and this inherent adaptability is already beginning to shine through.
Across the country, flexible home working solutions have been widely adopted - so both local authority and private sector planners* are continuing to work as normal (albeit with some unexpected assistance - a picture of my new PA is below).
Telephone hearings are taking the place of court dates, as the Planning Court looks to find new ways of keeping the justice system moving. According to Dr Ashley Bowes, a barrister at Cornerstone who participated in his first telephone hearing yesterday, it was 'all dealt with easily' and the relaxing of the formal court dress rules made for a nice change!
In response to PINS decision to postpone hearings, barristers from Kings and No 5 Chambers have joined forces to find a technology based solution. Proposals for the 'Virtual Planning Inquiry' are now with PINS, PEBA and MHCLG for consideration. When announcing the initiative on LinkedIn, Chris Young QC said:
"We found Zoom and various other free video-conferencing facilities allow for all inquiry procedures to continue, even though every participant is sat at home"
It will, however, require a more formal approach to office dress than is often the case for home working...
Even MHCLG is in on the act, with changes to permitted development rights on their way to allow greater flexibility. The proposed changes allow pubs and restaurants to operate as hot food take away's for up to a year without the need for planning. MHCLG's announced:
"The government will introduce a time limited permitted development right through secondary legislation (negative SI) to allow the temporary change of use of a pub (A4 - drinking establishment) and a restaurant (A3 – restaurants and cafes) to a hot-food take away for a period of up to 12 months only."
Further relaxations or amendments may well follow if we need to stay in isolation for an extended period, to deal with statutory timescales and the life span of planning permissions.
There are still problems to solve - for example how to get around the need for local councillors to be physically present at committee meetings - or how to write reports from home without my daughter commandeering the keyboard** - but we can and will get there.
As a profession we have helped to reshape and rebuild this country at least once before. We can, and will, do it again.
In my case, possibly whilst covered in yoghurt, the little one hasn't quite got the hang of eating with a spoon as yet... let alone social distancing.
* and planning solicitors
** she says "bkqfV'Q0[fy62" by the way
Most councils also have the ability to allow members of staff to work from home ... However, he added that there are likely to be some IT challenges in the weeks and months ahead, because many organisations', including councils', systems are not set up for everyone to be working remotely all of the time. New government guidance means that planning authorities are already adapting practices to the current emergency. Last week, the Scottish Government wrote to planning authorities to advise they remove restrictions on delivery times to supermarkets and the Northern Ireland government soon followed suit. English authorities earlier this week received a similar missive from the MHCLG.