• TP Editorial Team

The musings of a ‘lockdown’ planner…

As many of us have sat at home in our home offices, perched at the kitchen or dining room table, hovering in our child’s bedroom - or as I was told by one planner uncomfortably juggling a laptop on the bed when the battle was lost for the dining room table; I wonder what the future holds for the world of planning? How will we need to respond?

In the last few days, we have had a flavour of the wonderment that is coming down the tracks in terms of changes to the planning system. The bewildering and relentless daily Government COVID-19 directions and guidance that needed to be digested; a signal of the changes that are coming. From within the four walls of my study, I have mused over the ability to social distance on site visits, without appearing and feeling like I’m being rude.

Will the way we have always operated ever return - I think not! I question whether it will be for better or worse. The deep sadness around the considerable and tragic loss of life from the invisible killer that is COVID-19 surrounds us all and has not gone away. We must hope that some good will come out of this travesty. We have witnessed a tangible and growing sense of neighbourliness, community cohesion, people being kinder and more considerate to one another. Having the time obviously makes a difference. We witnessed the world starting to heal itself, the bird chorus that had become less and less over the years returning, the air becoming cleaner, people walking more, cycling and generally spending time together. The wonderful sight of whole streets coming together to clap the NHS - all good stuff. But will that continue? I so hope so. I ask what does all of this actually mean for planning practitioners? And I can honestly say that there is a lot of uncertainty and only time will tell - but change is everywhere, and I think there is no going back.

Working remotely since the 23rd March has been a real sea change and whilst there was a considerable degree of trepidation, it has proven remarkably successful. Video conferencing with colleagues, clients and Council Officers all a great success. The widespread introduction of webinars – what a revelation that has been. Effective IT systems have been vital and so the digital economy for planning will clearly be critical, as we move beyond the pandemic crisis. All important considerations for planning.

Council meetings including Planning Committee taking place virtually, planning hearings and inquiries also by these means. Are inclusivity constraints an issue with this, I wonder? What about the people who aren’t able to access digital platforms, are they going to be disadvantaged in this age of social distancing?

Sustainability - the big issue - the thread that runs through our National Planning Framework and flows down into local policies. If nothing else the pandemic has taught us just how much more sustainably we can live our lives and how we can function perfectly well without travelling as much as we did before.

Social, economic and environmental considerations are the overarching objectives running through all things planning policy - the policies that we as planning practitioners apply constantly. In a post COVID-19 sense what will it mean? Where will the weight be in the planning balance to be applied in the ‘Build, Build, Build’ Strategy that the Government has announced this week? Further amendments to the General Permitted Development Order will see the ability to undertake an increasing number of developments without the need for planning permission, to deliver homes and other forms of built development that will deliver social, economic and environmental benefits.

As a practice, Tyler Parkes has been involved in the securing of Prior Notification approval for the conversion of large office buildings to residential uses under the provisions of the General Permitted Development Order. The application of this more relaxed planning process has seen the delivery of many units of residential accommodation across the country. However, we are aware of some instances nationally where arguably substandard accommodation has been delivered and this is certainly something that is currently being looked at closely by Government. Windowless or exceptionally small units with very poor space standards and a lack of amenity have emerged, largely because Councils have little control over the detailing of the schemes.

However, it is a fact that under-utilised office buildings, often in very sustainable locations within town centres, do and can continue to present us with a valuable source of much needed housing - but I think there is a possibility that we will see amendments to the regulations to tighten up the criteria. Our experience has been that the process, as currently exists, is relatively straightforward and does allow such schemes, often of some considerable scale, to come forward pretty quickly, without getting mired in the general planning system. This can assist greatly with a Council’s five-year housing land supply figures. Therefore, it is hoped that, as the saying goes, the ‘baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater’ in the tightening of regulations, such as to render them just as complicated as a planning application can be, otherwise the source may well be diluted.

So, what do I take away from this? Working life is unlikely to be the same again; we should be thankful for the positives in this unprecedented time; and that whilst normal life is somewhat on hold, the regulations never cease to change! Do contact us if you need any help on interpreting the emerging regulations and in particular your office to residential schemes to see how we can help you negotiate through this ever changing planning and lifestyle landscape...

(Photo by Alexa Williams @glamorousplanning)