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Planning is 'at the coalface of economic recovery'

By Derek McKenzie, chief planner at Sefton Council, Merseyside

COVID-19 has impacted on public sector service delivery in many ways, and planning is no exception. From reading various media articles and observing feedback from RTPI networks, such as the Independent Consultants’ Forum, it is clear that the quality of service provided during COVID-19 has varied greatly and it is not always a case of planning services being fully open for business. None of us could have predicted this global pandemic and be fully prepared for the associated restrictions, which as we all know, have had a catastrophic impact on our economy. Without wanting to be patronising or overly dramatic, the scale of the problem cannot be overstated, and as I see it, it is the biggest challenge our profession now faces, particularly in the public sector, in assisting with the economic recovery of the country and supporting our local economies. For decades, the RTPI has successfully demonstrated that planning is at the heart of regeneration, but now I feel we are at the coalface of economic recovery.

Encouraged by the letter from the government’s Chief Planning Officer in March this year, which recognised the unprecedented challenges to the planning system and the economy, Sefton Council saw this as an opportunity to re-think the way it delivers its statutory Local Planning Authority function in order to find ways of encouraging and stimulating further investment and development within the Borough as one of many measures to help kick-start the local economy and assist in its recovery.

It is my view that at times like this, we not only need to be resilient in terms of service delivery, but we must also find innovative new approaches and acknowledge and mitigate associated risks. At Sefton Council we were very fortunate that the service was fully enabled to work flexibly long before COVID-19, having already embedded a flexible working culture, which included more staff working from home. However, we did not anticipate it happening at the scale it now does. Naturally I was keen to understand how this was impacting on service delivery after a few months of working like this, and through a staff survey, monitoring systems, and speaking to our service users, it became clear that the staff were happy, performance was unaffected, and our customers were satisfied. Supported by a very successful virtual planning committee that was meeting every three weeks, this allowed us to believe that the service was very much open for business during lockdown.

However, mindful of the financial difficulties many business and investors were now facing, it was felt that we needed to go further to incentivise development opportunities,. This prompted the following range of permanent and temporary measures:

  1. Free key stakeholder meetings for major investors and developers.
  2. Free pre-application advice for schemes that will bring reasonable benefits to the local economy.
  3. Refunding the planning application fee for schemes that seek a renewal of consent and commence development within 12 months of approval.
  4. Providing speedier decision making by determining all planning applications within statutory timeframes or sooner, where, with supporting evidence, they can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Local Planning Authority that they will bring reasonable benefits to the local economy.
  5. Issuing longer timeframes (five years) to commence development on new permissions.
  6. Adopting a flexible approach to temporary schemes on both public and private land where they may be required to adapt to circumstances presented by COVID-19.
  7. Adopting a flexible approach to breaches of planning control where non-harmful breaches relate to activities necessary to respond to the challenges of COVID-19.
  8. Introducing temporary Development Orders to allow greater flexibility for businesses to carry out works such as change of use to adapt to COVID-19 and were this will assist with economic recovery.
  9. Ensuring we deal with the discharge of conditions within 21 days where there is sufficient information to reach a decision.
  10. Providing advice and clarification to all stakeholder on the changes brought in by the Business and Economy Bill and developing an efficient system for handling related requests.

The proposed measures have been well received, and despite the initial lost revenue implications for the council, are considered to be interventions that will make a difference. The volume of applications has only marginally reduced at Sefton during COVID-19, and I believe this is in part due to the consistent message of being open for business. The number of applications received in June were above the number received during the same period last year. It is early days to start drawing any conclusions, but we will be closely monitoring the situation, particularly as it has resource implications for the Council.

Planners are sometimes asked why they got into planning. If I am honest, I don’t really know, but it is a decision I have never regretted. As my career developed, I realised that planning as a profession has so much potential, and really can make a difference in terms of improving the quality of people’s lives, and this is my focus now. I believe that what we are doing at Sefton will help stimulate the local economy and create employment. I am really proud to be part of our profession, and it is a great honour to be Sefton Council’s Chief Planning Officer and to have the opportunity to make a difference.


Derek McKenzie

Derek graduated from Dundee University in 1986 with an honours degree in Town and Regional Planning, progressing to his first Chief Planning officer role with North East Lincs Council in 2007. He spent time working in Dubai before starting his own consultancy in 2011. Two interim roles at Sefton Council on Merseyside, led to him up taking on the Chief Planner role permanently in December 2019. Derek has served on the RTPI’s International Committee for two years, and is a founder member of the Independent Consultant’s Network Steering Group. He is also the Vice Chair of the RTPI Yorkshire Region, and takes over as Chair in November 2020.

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