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.
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.
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
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.
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
- 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
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.
The RTPI has launched papers to guide the planning profession on its response to the pandemic:
- Pragmatic and Prepared for the Recovery – provides innovative approaches that have been developed to deal with the crisis. https://www.rtpi.org.uk/media/5304/pragmatic-and-prepared-for-the-recovery.pdf?pk_campaign=newsletter_3055. It has been published alongside the ‘Wider Insights’ document which contains a series of supported essays to the Report.https://www.rtpi.org.uk/covid-insights?pk_campaign=newsletter_3055
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….