Industry seeks clarity on planning amid Covid-19

The region’s property professionals are calling for information on what will happen to committee meetings and consultations while the country battles the virus outbreak. 

Many developers and consultants who spoke with Place North West lamented that a lack of clarity from local authorities as to how and if statutory decision making will continue is compounding uncertainty, with a negative impact on development in the region.

Carlisle City Council announced this week it has cancelled planning committee meetings until further notice, but other local authorities, including in Manchester and Liverpool, have yet to announce their stance with regard planning and development, and say they are waiting to see how the situation unfolds.

Ellie Philcox, director at Euan Kellie Property Solutions, said that, when speaking with planning officers, the company “has not received any guidance on what is happening with planning committees in the immediate future”. The industry is facing a period of “great uncertainty” as a result, she added. 

“This [lack of clarity from councils] will undoubtedly cause more uncertainty for the industry, and we don’t yet know the impact on council planning officers who are managing the determination of applications alongside their ability to work remotely.”

A further question, she added, is whether councils will need to elongate the determination period, and consultation periods for schemes, while members of the public are prioritising health and wellbeing instead of engaging with local schemes.

“There is a question as to whether councils will look to change their established protocols and aim to determine more schemes by way of delegated powers, thereby sidestepping the need for planning committees.

“This could potentially speed up the delivery of projects, in particular the smaller schemes.”

Beyond this, the industry will have to manage the impact on the construction and scheme delivery – particularly if workers are unable to go on site, Philcox said.

Simon Pemberton, senior director at planning consultancy Lichfields, agreed: “The picture is very much uncertain,” he told Place North West.

“We continue to have items scheduled for consideration by committees this week and next, with officers unable to confirm even today whether the meetings will actually take place.

“We are all hopeful that they will be taking place as we have some key projects that we have been working on for many, many months, where we were targeting committee decision within the next two to six weeks.

“The relief from the potential for ‘purdah’ [the pre-election period of non-decision making by councils] ahead of the the now cancelled May elections has provided a glimmer of light, but uncertainty remains in the short term.” 

Pemberton said he was hopeful that summer committee meetings for longer term projects would still take place, “as there should be ample time to establish alternative working procedures for these committees.

“However the uncertainty remains and our clients are nervous that projects will be delayed.”

Alastair Shepherd, director at Falconer Chester Hall, said the focus needed to be “first and foremost [on] the health of local authority workers and the public,” and that councils will be making  “difficult, but correct, decisions given the uncertainty.”

Both Shepherd, and Greg Dickson, planning director at Barton Willmore, called for technology-based contingency plans to help the planning process to continue with minimal disruption in the medium term.

“What the councils also need to be doing is looking ahead months, and not weeks, and be more agile,” Dickson said. “Wirral and Oldham Council already do broadcasts of their meetings, but this may be testing for some authorities.”

Holding virtual planning committee meetings and putting consultation material online for consideration may bring benefits by highlighting how unnecessary some travel is and propel people into using alternatives such as Skype, he added.

A further challenge planning authorities will have to navigate while much of the country is on lockdown, working from home and trying to contain the spread of the disease, is how to produce reports for committees. 

“Highways and infrastructure for example, aren’t currently able to collect accurate reports of traffic around potential developments as there aren’t as many people on the road,” Dickson noted. 

“Councils need to look at how they can still make decisions in the immediate future. Nobody wants development to stall – we all want housing and infrastructure growth to continue.”

Dickson said he believed Carlisle’s decision to cancel its committee meetings was “in the best interests of its staff and the public, and Bury looks likely to cancel its meetings as well”. Bury had not responded to Place North West‘s request for comment at the time of publication. 

Mark Canning, co-founder of Canning O’Neill, said that, so far, “not a lot has been impacted. There has been short term disruption such as companies only moving should they have to, but inevitably things are going to be impacted – deals are going to be delayed and some may even disappear.”

He called for answers to pressing industry questions as soon as possible. “Uncertainty is bad for business- it slows everything down. Work is still going on and we’re aiming to get back to normal as soon as possible.”

FCH’s Shepherd said: “One thing we do know is that the North West is resilient, resourceful and full of good people, so everyone will be pulling together to keep the economy going while caring for friends and family.”

More than five regional property developers approached by Place North West did not wish to provide comment at this time.

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