The future of plan-making in light of Covid-19

The UK’s plan-led system, as prescribed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), aims to create certainty. Something a little at odds with the current situation, where we all now find ourselves living in these most uncertain of times.

In theory, the certainty that is provided by adopted local plans should give confidence to the market, allowing for growth and paving the way for well-planned development to come forward in a co-ordinated manner. Put simply: the right development in the right place at the right time.

However, with less than half of all Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) across the country having NPPF-compliant plans in place, the challenge to progress towards adoption for the remaining LPAs is heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic. This pressure is only increased when you consider the Government’s recent announcement in the ‘Future of Planning’ policy paper which revealed all LPAs will soon be required to have up-to-date local plans, with interventions being triggered if the new requirements are not met.

In response to the current situation, the Planning Inspectorate stated that all local plan examinations must be postponed, video conference solutions will be investigated, and that pre- and post-hearing stages should still be progressed. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has also said that plans should be progressed as much as possible, even if some adjustments to timetables are necessary.

However, given the new requirements laid out in the Future of Planning, some feel that the Planning Inspectorate should be doing more to allow public meetings to be facilitated virtually, particularly if the social distancing period is extended significantly.

In reality, the task of preparing the evidence base, holding consultations and ratifying plans will be cumbersome. Timetables set out in Local Development Schemes will undoubtedly slip significantly, which might lead to more out-dated local policies and therefore the presumption in favour of sustainable development to be further applied to decision-taking.

Without being able to predict when the industry will get back up to speed again, it will be important that future Government guidance provides LPAs with the tools and incentives to progress plans in an effective and timely manner. The current situation provides a moment to reflect on plan-making and the future.

A more streamlined approach – a Government objective for many years – could be fully embraced by making sure that plans identify and focus on strategic matters and key priorities only. Digitisation and standardisation across the board in relation to terminology, consultation and evidence base studies would lead to more consistency and encourage joint-working, while also helping to justify spatial strategies.

Measures could also be introduced for the Planning Inspectorate to provide an increased level of ongoing advice during plan preparation. This would ensure that soundness and legal matters are on point for when examination commences, be that virtual or otherwise.

Moreover, the impact of a potential lag in construction, leading to a drop in completions, will impact five-year housing land supply statements and housing trajectories. Therefore a pragmatic approach will be required more than ever and there will be a clear need to boost housing delivery and the supply of sites. Creating conditions for this step change will be vital.

Moving forward all quarters of the industry, private-public alike, have a key role to play in supporting each other, especially in respect of plan-making. Future Government actions will be crucial if current objectives are to be achieved, and a collaborative, partnership approach not only between the private and public sectors, but also with Homes England, Business Improvement Districts, and other bodies, is now more important than ever.