Forshaw 2
Schemes such as Forshaw's latest Portugal Street East scheme are awaiting determination

Industry seeks clarity on planning amid Covid-19

Chloé Vaughan

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.

How is your company coping with the outbreak? Share your stories with Place North West by emailing news@placenorthwest.co.uk

Your Comments

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Why on earth are they cancelling the meetings? – they can move online – Skype/Teams/Zoom….. This is not the time to stall over such a surmountable obstacle – the council needs to do all it can to facilitate development continuing to support all those whose livelihoods depend on it!

By Manchester Architect

Making all decisions delegated ones in the short term would keep development industry rolling along wouldn’t it?.

By Depressed Latic

Manchester Architect – have you ever actually been to a planning committee meeting? It’s a public function, not a business telecon. It might be possible to replicate them online in time, but a lot of systems and protocols will need to be put in place and working properly, starting more or less from scratch, to be able to function properly. Until those systems are in place and reliable, it only makes sense to cancel the meetings and only set rescheduled dates once a viable online setup can be used.

By Sten

Depressed latic – it’d certainly lead to infinitely better decision making!

By Anonymous

Other services are going to have priority at present.Hopefully, in short time and in line with continuity plans you’d hope the Council’s have they can communicate them. I’d expect coming out of this economic growth will be a focus and support the industry.Lets be patient whilst they get systems into place?

By taxed

Manchester Architect – I talked to a committee clerk yesterday, they have no clue how to do this. For many Councils, this is probably going to take some consultancy input, so don’t hold your breath. Good news is, once they’ve broken the back of it due to the current situation, we’ll be much further towards Digital Planning than we were.

By Edge

Surely delegating more decisions is the best way? For major schemes let councillors submit questions and have responses (make it all public) then allow councillors to vote remotely. Objectors to proposals will have had the chance to make their case to officers and councillors in determination.

By S

Delegated decision making in the short term is absolutely the right answer. It cannot be overstated how important it is that everything is done to keep the industry moving. Delegated decision making is still a fully public and democratic process.

By SillyGoose

It’s alright saying delegated decisions are the way forward, but each Local Authority has its own scheme of delegation for all its functions. To change the scheme of delegation it has to be approved by the full Council and you can bet every local authority service is coming under pressure from its users. You can’t just change the scheme of delegation at the drop of a hat, it needs to go through the democratic process that’s the reality.

By MD

Temporary measures on a range of services have been voted on by Full Councils regularly over the past two weeks. There’s no reason why the scheme of delegation cannot be included and a temporary change put in place in a matter of days.

By SillyGoose