The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has called on the government to urgently issue planning guidance to prevent unnecessary delays to development and knock-on effects to the economy further down the line.
It follows a survey which revealed that nearly 70% of respondents said delays to the system were their main concern about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the efficient functioning of the planning system.
The RTPI said guidance on a range of challenges, including planning permission durations, site visits, site notices, communication with stakeholders and transparent decision-making was urgently needed.
Chief executive Victoria Hills said: “It is becoming increasingly clear that there will continue to be wide-ranging economic and social impacts as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Many planners are rightly concerned that a lack of clarification from central government on key aspects of the planning system is delaying planning processes. This will inevitably have knock-on effects on development and thus the economy into the future.
“To facilitate the continuation of the planning function the government must issue urgent guidance on areas including planning permission extensions, alternative arrangements for site notices and schemes of delegation.”
She said the RTPI is working closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to ensure the appropriate guidance is given to English planners. RTPI directors in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland are having similar conversations with their governments.
The Coronavirus Act 2020, which came into force on 26 March 2020, included regulations allowing all local authority meetings before 7 May 2021 to be held remotely and removing the requirement for the annual meeting this year but Ms Hills said this falls short of what is needed.
More than 1,000 of the RTPI’s 25,000 members responded to the survey, which was sent out at the beginning of April.
More than 96% of respondents said they had moved to remote working, while 65% have closed their offices completely.
More than half of respondents (52%) favoured digital hearings, inquiries, local review bodies and plan examinations.
But while most respondents (71%) said their IT systems had adapted well to remote working, fewer than half (41%) said they worked well when liaising with stakeholders and just 26% felt they were effective for public consultations.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63%) said schemes of delegation should be changed to enable planning officers to make decisions during the crisis, while 64% said delegated powers should be introduced to cover a wide range of decisions.
Half of respondents (49%) said rules should be relaxed relating to public access to hard copy documents and 40% said requirements around pre-application consultation in person should also be relaxed.
More than a third said housing delivery targets for 2020 should be reduced and extension of permissions by notice not application should be allowed.
Many members said the reduction of pollution and cleaner air seen during the lockdown should be seen as an opportunity to adopt better practices in the future to achieve net zero targets.
In Scotland emergency legislation has been introduced to ensure all planning permissions due to lapse during the six-month ‘emergency period’ will be extended for a further year. The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act also includes provision to allow committed to take decisions in-camera and waives the need for hard copy documents to be made publicly available in certain circumstance.
Ms Hills also urged local authorities to assess whether new ways of working adopted during the lockdown could continue in order to maximise efficiencies in the future and enable more joined-up working between planning authorities, leading to better outcomes for the environment.
The RTPI will be producing a report with further analysis from its member survey which will also build on its evolving sharing experiences document in due course. In June the Institute will publish a paper examining the long-term implications for planning after COVID-19.
Join the institute at 1.30pm on Friday 17 April on its #YouTube channel for the launch of an online events series to help planners navigate the current #COVID19 crisis. First up, Victoria Hills speaks to Heads of Planning Sarah Cary, Philip Ridley and Alex Codd: https://youtu.be/wDeaKaYHzy4