Is the pandemic having an impact on the planning process, or is it just being used as an excuse?

Darren Summerfield of LRM Planning and Justin Dodge of Westcountry Land and Homes share their views on the planning process during the pandemic

The planning process has long been a bone of contention for the property sector and over the years developers have been vocal on their views concerning its complexities.  

Lately, we have been pondering whether Covid has had an impact on planning applications over the past year, or has it been for all intents and purposes, ‘business as usual’.  

We spoke to Darren Summerfield of LRM Planning and captured the views of Justin Dodge, co-owner of Westcountry Land & Homes, to find out about their experiences.  

“People employ a planning consultant and quite rightly have certain expectations of securing as smooth a ride as possible, however, we are not able to escape the effects the pandemic is having on timeframes where planning applications are concerned. 

Part of the issue is that, quite honestly, we don’t always know what we will be facing or coming up against as the impact of the pandemic can vary from local authority to local authority and from planning officer to planning officer. For some of our projects we are experiencing delays at every stage of the planning process but the magnitude of what we experience differs from area to area.” said Darren.

“I recently had to spend hours gathering evidence as to why a particular project had been taking longer than expected and whilst it’s impossible for me to give any qualitative data with precise facts or figures, I have been in the industry long enough to know that the pandemic has certainly added another dimension and complexity to navigate when dealing with planning matters and is most certainly contributing to additional delays.” he adds.  

Darren and Justin agree that some Councils have been more agile in how they have responded than others. 

“We have dealt with Councils that seem to have mastered online committee meetings with hardly any issues at all and therefore the process has remained pretty much as it was pre-pandemic. I have also had experiences with another local authority where a key consultee for a particular project (a Town Council) had to delay meetings and decisions as their committee had to be issued with iPads (and then trained how to use them).” Darren states. 

“Whilst the Town Council in question has successfully embraced remote meetings and decision making, it did add an unanticipated delay while they – quite understandably – took time to get organised and up to speed,” said Darren. 

Justin and Darren agree that there is definitely a feeling that resources aren’t ever where they need to be where planning is concerned and looking back over the 12-18 months, there’s a shared sentiment of a continuation surrounding this theme, only it’s been exacerbated further by the pandemic.  

“When I was a planning officer, it was normal to have 25 – 35 planning cases at any one time, we are regularly hearing of officers with 50 to 60 or even more applications,” says Darren. Justin adds: “Officer availability can be unpredictable as they (like the rest of us) are balancing competing priorities including workload, childcare and for some, homeschooling. Communication, managing staff and working from home is more difficult – every business is experiencing this, it’s not unique to the public sector and we have to expect this to impact productivity.” 

Darren adds: “The planning process has never been straightforward or swift – it’s often been a struggle. In recent years resources have been a growing issue in Local Authorities – what I have experienced during the pandemic is a continuation of the same problem.”  

Asked what other reasons might be causing a slowing down, they offer these insights: 

“Decision making is slower because people aren’t sat in the same office – whereas before the ecologist, the heritage officer and the trees officer were all sat in an open plan office with the planners where collaborative working between different disciplines was more straightforward, it’s now far more difficult which is bound to have an impact.  

Committees can only get through so many cases in a virtual committee meeting. It’s a capacity issue, it does take longer – instead of a show of hands, they’re having to go to every Councillor and ask for their decision at numerous stages and as a result the number of cases that can be determined in one meeting has been reduced. But, when it is working, it’s operating well and we do see examples of this.” 

It’s not all negative though, as Darren does share that there have been some good examples of planning officers (and others) meeting with project teams to try and keep the momentum going despite the complexities being experienced.  

“If anything, the pandemic has sometimes improved communication by allowing more regular dialogue as it doesn’t always necessarily require for us all to be in the same place, we can do things virtually.” 

Asked what Darren thinks are the main contributing factors, he believes there are three main components: 

“Budget, resources (staff seem to be expected to cover more roles) and also, Councils seem to be struggling with recruitment. When you put all of those things together, it is easy to see how there may be a natural slowing down where progressing applications may be concerned. 

Darren concludes:  “Like with the private sector, every business – big or small, public or private – will have had to react and respond to its own particular set of challenges thrown up by the pandemic. Councils have had to deal with their own set of challenges too.” 

With the pandemic still raging and with no real end in sight or indication of when life will return to ‘normal’, Justin offers thoughts on the three things he would like to see changed in order to help bring about a speedier and more efficient planning process: 

  1. To help speed up the process and to ensure time is invested in the right areas, I think planning committees should only be dealing with applications of a more complex nature – for instance, those that have not satisfied some component or technical aspect of the planning requirements. I see no benefit in taking something to a planning committee that is fully compliant and within local planning policies, such as instances of allocated land (the fact it is deemed “allocated” means it has already been through a democratic process and determined by that Authority as appropriate for development). 
  2. I would also like to call for the introduction of a structure whereby planning officers have clear guidance on what should be a priority and top of their list to process. There’s no doubt planning officers have both a vast and varied workload, being expected to work through countless applications ranging from an extension to a domestic property to major applications where hundreds of homes could be created. It has never been more important than right now to encourage a system where applications are prioritised on their merit to help aid the economic recovery of the country. The construction and house building sector is going to play an integral part in this and planning officers need to be better supported to prioritise major and strategic applications.
  3. The third thing is for the Government to stand firm on their pledge to reform the planning system – this is vital as it is currently overly complex. 

The final comment from Justin on the planning process during the pandemic is this: 

The reality is, it has always been difficult, this isn’t a new thing for people in our industry to be dealing with. It’s just planning! There is some slowing down but the system is broken and it always has been, Covid hasn’t broken it, it has just been made slightly worse for some Officers or Authorities. 

We’d love to hear your thoughts and views – get in touch…..