We have just completed our first three weeks in lockdown. As we have at least another three to go, I thought it would be nice to take a look at just how far the planning system, and those in it, has come since the world changed. 

There is quite a lot that we can be proud about. Planning is not known for being quick to respond to changing circumstances, but if nothing else, the current situation has shown us that we can be quite nimble when we put our minds to it.

Both Planning Committees and the Planning Courts are now starting to move online - with remote court hearings already underway. Just a couple of days ago, Reigate & Banstead Borough Council used a virtual planning committee to approve one of the UK's largest retirement communities (by value), on the site of the former L&G campus in Kingswood. An increasing number of committees are moving onto a digital platform, albeit not all quite so successfully. According to Planning Resource, one Council in Somerset found out to its detriment than an online committee can bring the art of heckling from the public gallery to entirely new lows. 

Whilst PINS has been slower to adopt digital technologies, some of the responses to Coronavirus in their decision making has been interesting. At least one Inspector has found that the slowdown in construction caused by the virus will have a knock on effect on a Council's five year housing land supply, reasoning:

"109..........The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have implications for the housebuilding industry as with other sectors of the economy. The evidence indicates that a number of developers are temporarily closing their construction sites to protect employee and customer welfare. For those remaining open, the lock-down will impact on the availability of support services. Customer confidence is also likely to be reduced with a consequent effect on the buying and selling of property. 

110. The Appellant has concluded that the effects would be felt for a 3 to 6 month period, which does not seem unreasonable. On that basis the conclusion is that a further 168 dwellings should be removed from the trajectory to take these factors into account. .... "

I suspect housing land supply is not going to be the only matter relevant to planning appeals that will be affected by the lockdown. It will be interesting to see what measureable impact the ‘pause’ will have had on air quality, given the severe reduction in vehicle emissions caused by the lack of commuting. The Guardian has already reported that our electricity demands have fallen significantly over the last few weeks, so it is reasonable to assume that there may well be a significant environmental and ecological upside to the quarantine period. It certainly seems to be benefiting the wild goat population of rural Wales.

The Secretary of State also appears to be using the additional time inside to clear his casework - as he has handed down three appeal decision in the last two weeks. Granting consent for a 200 Unit Scheme in Colchester and a large mixed use development in Vauxhall.  Permission for an Agri Tech Park in Cambridgeshire was refused. All three decisions followed the recommendation of the Inspector, which was extremely sensible in the current circumstances.

The Government  seems to be keen to keep construction and house building moving. Over the last few days, the Times has reported that:

  • Construction on HS2 could start within weeks,
  • The government is considering extending the Help to Buy Scheme; and
  • That some of the measures the sector has been lobbying for around s.106 and CIL payments, and extending the life of planning permissions, may well be on the cards (see below).

There is still a lot for us all to be getting on with, and plenty of challenges left to tackle, however the progress that has already been made in such a short period of time should be celebrated. In a time of storms, it helps to look for a rainbow. Thankfully, there seem to be a fair number of them around.