Thu 9 April 2020, 6:39 pm
Local authorities have embraced modern technology in the planning process during coronavirus lockdown as they aim for development to be at the heart of the economic recovery, The Voice of Authority's latest webinar heard.
Councillors and officers have spent the last few weeks grappling with how to maintain vital services despite national travel restrictions to halt the spread of the virus.
Talking to 3Fox's managing director Toby Fox this morning (Thursday, April 9), senior council officers said they have been inundated with planning applications during lockdown and are harnessing technological solutions to be able to process the requests.
They want to ensure virtual planning committees will work before putting them into action, therefore staving off the threat of endless judicial reviews, and see development as the springboard for recovery once the crisis has passed.
Stewart Murray, strategic director for economic growth and housing delivery at Waltham Forest Council, said its planning committee intends to focus on major projects during the crisis to “send a very clear message that we are keeping going”.
“Planning is at the forefront of economic recovery”, he told the webinar which was sponsored by developer London Square. “It’s a priority for government, the Mayor, and the borough.”
He said the authority’s planning committee chair has insisted on dealing with “strategic” projects which would boost the “economic wellbeing of the borough”.
“We are making sure the council’s own pipeline, our development schemes and housebuilding, is coming forward and accelerating”, he said.
Mike Kiely, chairman of the Planning Officers Society, said heavy investment in IT systems in previous years has made a virtual planning process a reality and maintained a “near-normal service” for users, though care has to be taken over site visits and planning committee meetings.
So far applicants have embraced a call for them to send in videos and images of sites, he said, to ensure councillors and officers are fully informed before taking a decision.
“We have a high degree of confidence we have got the information we need to assess the applications”, he said. “Applicants are delighted the planning service is still functioning and it is giving them something to do.”
He said remote committee meetings need to be carefully managed to avoid decisions being invalidated.
“Members making decisions must be there for the whole of that item, and if they leave the room normally they couldn’t vote on that item”, he explained.
“If objectors or applicants who have got the wrong decision discover a certain councillor’s broadband dropped out during the meeting, technically they could argue they shouldn’t vote as they missed part of the meeting.”
Heather Cheesbrough, director of planning and strategic transport at Croydon Council, agreed that authorities must not open themselves up to costly judicial reviews by rushing into untested virtual hearings.
“Planning committees are the shop window - we want to make sure we get it absolutely perfect before going out there”, she said. “We don’t want a dog’s breakfast in front of everybody.”
She said the first week of lockdown had brought a rush of planning applications, with officers dispersed around the country assessing the plans and writing up reports from home.
Emergency regulations introduced by the government have allowed an increase in delegated decisions, while councils are considering reducing the numbers of members sitting on committee meetings when virtual hearings are necessary. They are also allowing written and pre-recorded submissions from interested parties, to ensure that all views have been properly heard.
Mike De’ath, partner at architect HTA Design, struck an optimistic note as he said challenges being faced during the pandemic could have transformative effects once the crisis has passed.
“Some things we can benefit from long into the future”, he said, highlighting virtual pre-application processes as a big step forward.
“Some elements of discussion are better”, he added. “When you are looking at a screen and being taken through work, you can see it. We are learning techniques of better describing projects – infographics, 3D – and less reliance on waving hands around in a meeting.”
On Thursday, 16 April, at 11am, tune in to The Voice of Authority webinar discussion on the supply chain issues facing development sites now, and the way forward. The session is “How will offsite manufacturing support the recovery programme?".
Head to The Voice of Authority website at www.thevoiceofauthority.co.uk for more details.
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