David Pugh is the Planning & Development Director for Facultas Associates, a public affairs consultancy – and a former leader of the Isle of Wight Council.
Up and down the country, local authorities are playing a leading role in supporting households, businesses, and community organisations as they seek to navigate the unprecedented times we face. Upper-tier authorities are also overseeing the delivery of vital frontline services such as social care and public health, and all councils are partners in county-wide local resilience forums, which have a key co-ordinating role as the pandemic continues.
My own local authority – the Isle of Wight Council – has, amongst other things, set up a dedicated helpline for vulnerable residents and allocated its own resources to support third sector organisations and parish councils in providing grassroots support to households across the Island.
The Government is rightly taking a cautious approach, not least as it is keen to avoid a second wave of the pandemic. But the current measures will be eased, and we will see a gradual return to some form of normality. And when it does happen, we can expect a bounce back in economic growth. The co-operation of councils will be critical.
With over 300 local planning authorities (LPAs) in England alone, each one of these councils is well placed to use its development management functions to facilitate growth at a local level. Businesses should be supported – where possible – in any plans that will help secure the future of existing industry and jobs, and also where growth and additional employment is proposed.
England’s Chief Planner said recently that local authorities should “prioritise decision-making to ensure the planning system continues to function, especially where this will support the local economy”. Thanks to new powers handed to councils last month, public decision-making (by elected members) can now take place remotely – and this includes meetings of planning committees to determine applications for development. A live tracker published by planning consultancy Lichfields – in partnership with the Government-backed Planning Advisory Service (PAS) – shows how individual councils are adapting to ensure that development management functions continue.
So how might this look in practice, and what role can local politicians play?
Firstly, lead members must ensure that systems are put in place to ensure that planning committees can meet virtually – with minimal delay to regular schedules. PAS (using the resources of the Local Government Association (LGA)) has provided guidance and best practice to help councils get these systems up and running as quickly as possible. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea hosted England’s first fully virtual planning committee on 9th April, and there is no reason why this cannot be swiftly replicated across the country.
Secondly, lead members for planning should ask officers to identify which live applications could broadly be defined as supporting the local economy, and then prioritise the resolution of any outstanding issues, with a view to approving under delegated powers or – if necessary – recommending approval to a planning committee meeting in the near future. If there are details which still need to be finessed, these can – where possible – be subject to conditions and / or a legal agreement which would then be finalised prior to implementation. The key thing is to signal that the LPA is enabling the development, and will work pro-actively with the applicant to ensure it can go ahead. It may, of course, be that the applicant isn’t yet (because of supply and construction restrictions, if not finance issues) in a position to implement the consent – but having a decision notice will at least allow them to start preparing for when they are.
Thirdly, councils should look at schemes which have been subject to pre-application discussions in the past year and – subject to the broad acceptability of the proposals – encourage applications to be submitted in the near future, with a view to progressing such plans to a decision in the coming months, to enable development to take place once the lockdown is eased or lifted.
Fourthly, planning departments should consider whether applications which are “departures” from the agreed Local Development Plan should be approved. Such proposals, by their very nature, run partially or wholly contrary to the planning policy framework, but councils do have the discretion – where it can be justified – to make such departures. For instance, this could be to allow a scheme which is for economic development in a location which is not allocated for such a purpose, and / or on a scale which might be considered to be out of keeping. In addition, councils may wish to consider whether “very special circumstances” exist which outweigh any perceived harm to the Green Belt, or similar such designations. Of course, such considerations must still be made entirely within the parameters of the quasi-judicial planning process, but councils should not shy away from recognising that the current unprecedented circumstances provide a context which could reasonably justify a bolder-than-usual approach.
It is essential that the potential concerns of the immediate locality are taken into account when considering such development proposals. Town halls are now taking a revised approach to community consultation to ensure this continues to happen.
Finally, both planning authorities and the Government may need to look afresh at what local and national planning policies respectively are in place as we emerge from the pandemic. It is difficult to see how the high street can recover from the current crisis without radical change; just as those of us living in destination parts of the country recognise that it will be difficult for many visitor accommodation owners to continue trading as they were. In short, we may need to look at how existing commercial premises are given the opportunity to convert to residential (or flexible mixed uses) much more easily than they currently can.
What is needed is decisive political leadership locally, backed up by reforms from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) to empower LPAs to use the planning system to drive economic growth. The Government could accelerate its forthcoming Planning White Paper – and the resulting reforms – to start making interim changes (that respond to the challenges arising from the pandemic) in the coming weeks and months.
This could, for instance, include giving discretion to LPAs to reduce or waive planning fees for applications that relate to economic development, subject to implementation timescales being imposed with any permission granted. MHCLG also needs to make sure that any proposed decisions that are referred to Whitehall’s Planning Casework Unit – for potential call-in by the Secretary of State – are handled swiftly, with a continued strong presumption in favour of local decision-making, thereby allowing councils to proceed to issue consent.
Local government can rise to the challenge and became a key enabler for post-pandemic economic growth. There may not yet be the business confidence – or even the ability – to proceed with implementing planning permission, but councils can use their powers to ensure that developers and investors are able to do so once the lockdown is eased. We are already seeing many examples of best practice in local authorities across the country, including in the use of their development management functions. It is now time for the political leadership of all councils – with the backing of Ministers – to harness the power of planning in the weeks and months ahead.