Planners give councils mixed reviews for Covid-19 changes

Some of the region’s consultants have praised local authorities for adapting their planning procedures during lockdown, while others have bemoaned increased delays in decision making.

One consultant, who asked not to be named, said they had noticed an “increase in pedantry” among council officers, and had had several applications returned to him at pre-validation stage with requests for more information.

The consultant said he believed councils are actively trying to reduce workloads by postponing complicated or non-urgent applications until after restrictions are lifted.

“We very rarely get an application invalidated,” the consultant said. “I have had three invalidated during lockdown, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

The planner said they had been asked for further technical information on issues such as building elevations for an access track, and a bat survey for a barn that had already been demolished. Applications were also invalidated for not including dimensions on scale drawings, something that is not required by planning legislation.

The source said: “When staff are working remotely, they don’t have general supervision and those who are more junior or less knowledgeable can’t turn around and ask, ‘What do you think about that?’

“As a result, they are making inappropriate judgement calls and, when challenged, cannot provide clear answers. It’s not right. I think councils are trying to push work back because they are not able to deal with it right now, and invalidation has become a bit of a line of defence.”

Another consultant, Dan Mitchell, planning partner at Barton Willmore, praised Manchester City Council for its early adoption of interim planning measures. The council is making determining applications under delegated powers to speed up the decision making process. 

Mitchell said there had been an initial delay in validating applications as councils adjusted to the new processes, but most are “getting to grips” with things now.

“The true test is how councils deal with applications that are only just being submitted, and there are really positive signs of councils working quickly on processing new schemes coming through,” he said.

Richard Barton, principal at Avison Young, which this week won approval for a 400,000 sq ft warehouse at Manchester’s Airport City, agreed with Mitchell, saying that, despite some delays, he has been impressed by council efforts to implement alternative arrangements to determine applications, such as holding virtual committee meetings, as reported by Place North West.

“Inevitably there has been a bit of a lull and a slight delay on some applications while officers were getting used to working from home,” Barton said. “That being said, schemes councils were anticipating have been validated promptly in the usual manner.”

However, Dan Matthewman, managing director of County Planning, which submitted plans for a Woodland retreat at Gulliver’s World in Warrington, said inconsistency of approach across different councils made things difficult.

Gulliver's World November 2019

County Planning is working on plans for a woodland retreat at Gulliver’s World in Warrington

“We have submitted applications to seven different councils in the North West since lockdown began and I can firmly say none of them are approaching the situation in exactly the same way,” he said.

“The uncertainty is unhelpful and validation of applications in some areas has slowed down, but, on the whole staff are doing their best to keep the system moving.”

Despite the initial difficulties, Matthewman noted there had been better and more informal dialogue with planning officers than usual, “leading to a more open exchange of ideas on applications”.

He said: “Expectations of timescales are better managed on both sides and some officers are being genuinely open-minded on how to make decisions.”

Having to conduct pre-application meetings remotely does require greater organisation on the part of consultants, Barton added.

“The current pandemic and the fact that things need to be done virtually means that every ‘i’ needs to be dotted and every ‘t’ need to be crossed, and the more detail you can provide upfront the greater the certainty you have in getting the recommendation you’re hoping for.”

Barton Willmore, consultant for Muse Development’s Birkenhead town centre regeneration, among other schemes, reacted quickly to the changes in working conditions by buying 40 new laptops and taking other measures to support 350 staff to work from home.

Those staff have plenty of work to be getting on with for the time being, but Mitchell said consultancies’ workloads are dependent on housebuilders, many of which have furloughed staff and stopped operations.

“Residential is 60% of the market and until housebuilders get things moving again, work will be delayed,” Mitchell said.

“We want councils to keep maintaining a planning service, so they are geared up to process applications as quickly as possible when the bounceback comes.”

Birkenhead November 2019 1

Barton Willmore is advising on Muse Development’s Birkenhead regeneration

“The need for new homes has not suddenly abated,” agreed Matthewman. “We still need new housing and all professionals involved must think creatively about how to overcome delivery constraints and close funding gaps.”

Planners are arguably better placed to work from home than other parts of the development industry that are required on-site more often. And the lockdown has only served to reinforce many planners’ urge to protect the environment, for example by cutting down on commuting, Matthewman added.

“Where people previously felt they couldn’t or weren’t well enough equipped to work remotely, they have now overcome that hurdle and much of the stigma attached to homeworking has been set aside.

“Planning has a role to play in reducing climate change and people have proved they can communicate effectively and use technology to good effect. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, but it’s not either-or, we can have both.”

Another positive lesson planners and councils can learn from lockdown is the importance of joined-up collaboration at an early stage, added Barton.

“Pre-application discussions should involve not just the case officer, but ecologists, highways officers, ground contamination officers, and others, to make sure everyone is clear on where they stand. There will be fewer surprises and applications will be considered more quickly.”

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