by RTPI President Sue Manns FRTPI
1 June 2020
The origins of our planning system lie in the need to tackle the poor public health and housing conditions of the 19th century. The cholera epidemics had brought about an understanding of the need for clean water supplies and sewage systems, the link between quality of the environment, living conditions and labour productivity were increasingly recognised, whilst the 1909 Housing, Town Planning etc Act (the first piece of legislation to use the term ‘planning’) banned the building of back-to-back housing which were seen as unhealthy and allowed local authorities to prepare schemes of town planning. The role and importance of ‘planning’ as central to tackling public health challenges of the day cannot be under-estimated; our response to COVID19 should be no different.
In the short term our focus has been to ensure that the planning system continues to function through this difficult period. In achieving this, planners have shown themselves to be innovative, adaptable and resilient. Ways of working were transformed almost overnight, with cultural and technological obstacles quickly overcome. It’s an extraordinary thing that technology has allowed us to keep the planning system running, given the fact that most people are doing it from their homes.
Looking forward, we need to ensure that, as we gradually return ‘normality’, we do not lose sight of the lessons that we have learned from this pandemic about the way we live, work and use our homes, our local places and spaces. What will change, why and how does that impact on planning?
Many of us have, over the past two months, experienced life in a very different way. Life has become more local, we have spent more time in and around our homes and our local areas – this is all we had. As a result the strengths and the weaknesses of each have become increasingly evident. The suitability of our homes as places to live, work and home school, 24/7, has for many of us been a real challenge. My heart goes out to those who live in cramped conditions, with no access to outdoor space, no access to local shops where essential supplies can be purchased, poor or no internet connectivity, or who are isolated from family and friends.
There is little doubt that the High Street has been severely impacted by the crisis; but if there’s one thing the High Street is good at, it’s evolving. So, how can we breathe new life back into our high streets and shopping centres, making them places that people want to visit once again; it may be that this requires a different way of thinking about the role of our town centres?
With 60% of the UK’s adult population currently working from home, the Chief Executive of Barclays, Jes Staley, recently commented that "the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”. How will this affect the demand for, size and location of office space going forward and what will be the ‘knock-on’ impacts on ‘spend’ in those centres where people were based?
How will the need for social distancing change travel behaviour and will those changes be long-term? The capacity restrictions on our buses and trains has reduced occupancy to around 20% of pre COVID 19 levels and, aside from walking and cycling, the private car is seen by many as the safest form of transport. Reductions in travel, especially by air and private car, are already having a marked positive impact on carbon emissions and air quality, with the latter having clear associated health benefits. There is growing public pressure to ensure that these do not return to a pre COVID-19 level.
And what of our parks, green and open spaces? Their role in improving health and well-being has been well known since Victorian times. The quality of our spaces and places matters. We need to ensure that high quality, accessible green space / outdoor space is an integral part of all new development – it is not only good for mental and physical wellbeing, but also has a key role to play in mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Digital connectivity is the golden thread that is keeping society and families connected. But in places, especially rural areas, speeds are still painfully slow and connections at best ‘flaky’. From remote schooling to home working and video conferencing, many of us have relied on digital technology to keep in touch with friends and family. Going forward, the importance of digital infrastructure and ensuring that the whole community is connected must feature prominently.
I am personally amazed and heartened by the rapid uptake of technology by the older generation, many of whom had until very recently sought to avoid it. And also by how much they are enjoying their new connectivity! The greater use of technology opens up real opportunities for better community engagement and debate in and about planning. As an early advocate of public speaking at planning committee, I was so pleased to see how some ‘virtual’ planning committees are seeing increased attendance by members of the public.
The COVID-19 crisis has given added emphasis to the importance of investing in the future, reinforcing the legitimacy of public investment in health and social care. However if we are to see lasting change for the better we also need to invest in good quality, well designed homes, spaces and places. There is much to reflect upon in the coming months and in doing so we must not lose sight of these and the many other important challenges, such as tackling climate change, that we were working on beforehand – these have not gone away!
Planning must be centre stage in shaping our post COVID19 future; and it must be properly resourced to deliver this. Planners have the skills and indeed the responsibility to lead the debate and it is vital that they are at the ‘top table’ when this happens.