Monthly Archives: May 2020

 

Rumination 1 – Starting to Plan for Recovery

 

Construction site face mask must be worn sign

As the nation is starting to come back into circulation, we have all been starting to reflect on how we plan for recovery – both professionally and in managing our businesses.

Inevitably the construction industry has been significantly impacted upon by event and will take some time to recover, however it is also true that it is a vital element of the nation’s economic recovery and as such must be at the forefront of leading the charge. In our collective time of reflection, it is obvious that whilst our confinements have been enforced and at times frustrating, there is also the opportunity for space for inspiration, innovation and change in work practices to emerge as better versions of our pre-COVID selves, with working practices and lifestyles which are potentially healthier for us, our spaces and places as well as the wider environment and economy.

With daily press conferences, constant news bulletins and policy formulation coming by the day, it is at times hard to keep up with the way our worlds and working practices will be changed, but we’ve consolidated a few of the key elements for you.

London

On 15 May, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and Transport for London (TfL) announced plans to transform parts of central London into one of the largest car-free zones in any world capital city. At the start of  the lockdown,  road activity fell by almost 60 per cent and emission of nitrogen dioxide was reduced by circa 50 per cent on some London roads. The Congestion Charge and Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was reintroduced on 18 May.

On the same day, affordable housing delivery statistics showed 17,256 affordable homes were started by 31 March 2020.  This exceeded the Mayors 17,000 dwelling target.

Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State (SoS) for Housing, Communities and Local Government published two written ministerial statements on construction and planning on 13 May. This guidance included temporary measures to make the planning system easier to operate.

Construction Hours

Some useful and interesting matters were highlighted by the SoS, principally that:

  • Greater flexibility in working hours on construction sites to enable social distancing requirements, including, varied start/finish times
  • Planning conditions should not prevent the safe operation of construction sites
  • Council’s should act proportionately in responding to suspected breaches of planning control and also act positively to requests for flexibility on site working hours
  • Any temporary changes to construction working hours conditions granted by local planning authorities should not extend beyond 13 May 2021

https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2020-05-13/HCWS234/

CiL/S106 Guidance Review

  • The Government will introduce amendments to the Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations 2010 to allow charging authorities to defer payments, to temporarily remove the late payment interest mechanisms
  • A discretion to return interest already charged where appropriate for developers that have an annual turnover of less than £45 million will be allowed.

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-community-infrastructure-levy-guidance?pk_campaign=newsletter_3039

Sales

Initiatives on  13 May 2020, sought to:

  • Enable Councils and developers to publicise planning applications via social media instead of site posters and leaflets; and
  • Provide a range of initiatives for sales centres, agents and purchasers to follow to comply with social distancing whilst allowing the sales market to continue.

Appeals & Examinations

Inspectorate announcements were issued on 24 March 2020 regarding:

  • Video conferencing
  • Webcast/recording
  • Electronic bundles

PINs is moving towards a more electronic based system in the knowledge that there will be at least six months of restrictions on gathering and as such they have started looking at elements of:

  • Virtual inquiries
  • Statements of common ground
  • Proofs of Evidence
  • Cross Examination procedures, and
  • Roundtable

The new guidance seeks a more frontload evidence base restriction on documents size and extent of appendices. The Rosewell Review (February 2019), highlighted that the Inquiry process delivers about 20,000 dwellings per annum and acknowledged that it takes on average, about 1 year for an appeal to be determined.

The Inspectorate had just started to introduce case management conferences when the COVID crisis hit, the idea of this was to:

  • Speed up process – 16 weeks plus six weeks for a decision
  • Usual element of cross examinations, but also roundtable sessions lead by the Inspector
  • Case management conferences – new to the planning system but is familiar to other aspects of the courts, providing the opportunity to consider the inquiry structure

The planning bar are set to support PINS to trial inquiries by video conference. As we know, planning committees are now continuing in a virtual manner, some with greater success than others.

On 13 May 2020, the Inspectorate also announced that it was to recommence site visits and would be holding more digital case events.  Site visits would only take place if the Inspector could attend safely and the case required a site visit.

With regards to digital events, the guidance is that:

  • “hearings and inquiries for different types of casework (e.g. planning appeals, national infrastructure, local plans etc) [be] held via telephone or video conferencing the Inspector may need to ask questions or hear cross examination for complex issues
  • there is high level of public interest and a public event needs to be held
  • where the legislation governing casework requires, such an event can be held in given circumstances (e.g. national infrastructure and local plan examinations)

We understand that the first fully digital hearing took place on 11 May 2020 as a pilot, and there are a further 20 examinations, hearings and inquiries proposed for May and June 2020. There are also two Local Authorities for who trial Local Plan hearing sessions are being considered.  If successful, this will be rolled out for all examinations.

We have to question whether this is a sign of the new way as the Inspectorate acknowledge that any changes made will need to be sustainable in the longer term…. It will be interesting to see how the process evolves.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/site-visits-to-recommence-and-more-digital-case-events-planned?pk_campaign=newsletter_3040

RTPI

The RTPI has launched papers to guide the planning profession on its response to the pandemic:

When Local Authorities like St Albans have failed to produce a sound local plan since 1994, it is sometimes hard to think that the planning system can be quickly responsive to need.  With the breadth and scope of positive initiatives that have been implemented in the past couple of months, there are however seemingly reasons to be optimistic.

Whilst there are a lot of strategic initiatives taking place to ensure that the planning systems adapts quickly to the current pandemic, (and is perhaps sufficiently versatile to cope with any future pandemics),  there are a number of issues closer to home that we will also have reflect upon. For example,  will our homes (and gardens) need to be designed to facilitate greater homework and recreating? Have we realised that our gym membership really is a waste of money when we can use our home gym or enjoy a run around our local park for free?  Do we need the daily commute? Do we need to work from offices daily arriving at set hours and leaving at set hours? Can we integrate flexibility into our working lives to ensure productivity/enhance productivity in some instances – whilst also ensuring that the office environment and ‘buzz’ is and can be retained? Will flexible hours be increased to manage rush hour queues? Can our lifestyles and environments improve as we travel by car less and utilise virtual means for connecting? All these such issues will affect how we plan for future new development…

With  us all being used to a new way of interacting, the development sector starting to gear back up again,  and  the sales market being progressed in line with social distancing measures, we have to hope that these seedlings of a return to our new normal develop and grow into green shoots and prosper….strange but interesting time to come….

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COVID-19 Encourages Virtual Planning

 

Quick planning (ish) legal test – do some or all the following mean anything to you – S73, S106, S25, S78?

S73 – develop without compliance with conditions (TCPA – Town & Country Planning Act)

S106 – legal agreement (T&CPA)

S25 – councillors can vote on an application upon which they have expressed a view (Localism Act)

Good (ish) going so far?  What about S78?  Well keen planners out there, S78 (T&CPA) does allow an appeal to be made in relation to an application, but another more recent S78 has far different implications.

S78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (1) came into force on the 4th April 2020.  Regulation 5 of said legislation allows local authorities (amongst others) to meet, consider and decide matters away from a single location in person (say the Council Chamber) and effectively convert the time tested tradition of planning applications being determined in the Council chamber,  in person to, wait for it – an online accessible medium.

The single most important benefit for planning is that in this lockdown stay at home environment, planning applications can still be determined by committee and an important end game in the planning system, determination, is not obstructed.

Many planning authorities have been webcasting planning committee meetings prior to the Virus Act, benefits amongst others being:

  • Interested parties including members of the public can observe committee dealings without physical attendance, particularly when committee times vary (2pm, 6pm, 7pm) and may not be conducive to travelling to X or Y Town Hall and having to actually be there.
  • Committee Member’s behaviour can be observed prior to the determination of an applicants’ own application. Spot the silent majority/minority, Cllr A who adores Policy Res1.2 so much that all applications are tied to it, or Cllr B who always seems to reiterate/repeat what Cllr C says.
  • Officer’s behaviour can also be observed. From the methodical, steady presenting officer to the officer who politely reminds the Chair that precedent has been set elsewhere, right through to an officer who was observed being unable weather the storm which many Cllrs brought to home on numerous applications (not helped by a weak Chair).
  • Agent’s behaviour can be observed and critiqued

Now the key difference is that all planning committees are being dragged into reality and being forced to conduct planning business in public over the web in real time.  I have observed a Hertfordshire planning authority conduct their affairs extremely well (and this was their first online attempt).  The Chair assumed his normal controlling authority, the presenting, questioning, determining format was scrupulously deployed and third parties were very fairly dealt with and in one case questioned by Members.

I have, however, also observed a Kent planning authority where webcasting has been in operation way before the Virus legislation came along and where Members who were unable to come to a view on a particular aspect of an application decided to down (online) tools, halt the meeting and retire to another (non-onlined) room without officers “to discuss” and then return with an answer.

In the future, with online working increasing other staples of Council meetings should/could be shelved.  What about the 60-odd, 100 sometimes +300 page paper agendas which are churned out of the Council’s print section a week in advance of meetings, to be followed by 10, 20, 30+ paper addendum in the run up to the meetings?  Hardly sustainable, especially when said Councillors may extol the virtues of their own Local Plan policy Sus2.1 which seeks to ensure developments install Electric Vehicle charging points.

One note of caution which I learned (the hard way) prior to online committee meetings being mandatory, remember, if you are acting on behalf of the applicant and are speaking before committee, you may be being recorded and webcast.  Having been asked at the last minute to substitute a colleague who was ill, I turned up to a planning committee trying to assimilate the bare essentials (and more) before the coveted 3 minute speaking slot.  3 minutes done and dusted, relatively easy ride from Member’s questions, planning permission granted, leave Chamber at 9.30, pm, home just before midnight – job done!

Next morning (9.30ish) the project’s architect called to congratulate on getting permission.  I was somewhat perplexed as I had only informed the client the night before.  This particularly keen and assiduous relatively junior architect had viewed the committee proceedings online and seen and heard my inclusion wanted or not!  One other slightly irritating feature of the online webcasting is that anyone (client, colleague, boss, junior team members, even family and you yourself (!!), can observe and mark out of ten your efforts!

Overall, this is a welcome temporary measure which should be made permanent, post virus conditions.  Indeed, many local authorities have already introduced successful webcam recording conditions.  Having spoken to officers and Members any initial hiccups have been swiftly remedied.  One officer (and indeed mine with two authorities) is that fewer items are being put on the agenda as many applications (with one authority) seemed to be taking longer to determine.  No fault of Members or officers just time-lag, repetition being needed, some contributor’s (Members, speakers, applicant, etc) online presence not there when required. From a practical and procedural perspective one officer stated that agenda setting and preparation for the committee meeting was “smarter and more effective.”  For that authority, a result has been the faithful monthly committee meetings now occurring weekly.

A great way in which to prepare for committee meetings noting officer and Member traits in the expectation that when it is your turn to be under the virtual microscope you can also “perform” efficiently, calmly and authoritatively – all resulting in – “planning permission granted” !!!

 

 

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