Letter: Coronavirus crisis offers opportunity to update antiquated planning system

Change often happens when you least expect it, but necessity is the mother of invention. And that's exactly what we are seeing happen to the UK's planning system as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Frankly, I never thought I would see the day when the UK's outdated planning system would ever experience any significant change - at least during my working career.

Any chance of a radical overhaul always seemed unlikely given we've hardly changed it since 1947's Town and Planning Act, and continue to practice Use Classes, the method of categorising buildings, which was established pre-internet in 1987.

But, the Covid-19 crisis is acting as an unlikely catalyst to finally cause change to happen at pace.

It is true that in March communities secretary Robert Jenrick announced new planning reforms to get homes built more quickly - but they didn't go far enough.

Now though, the need for rapid adaptation is clear. Social distancing and remote working means, left in its current state, the entire system would grind to a halt. That would be ruinous to the real estate industry as all involved throughout the chain would be left waiting in limbo.

Thankfully, the government and local authorities have grasped this, and have moved swiftly to ensure that virtual planning is now able to go ahead, keeping the system running as best as it can during this difficult time.

But the fundamental question remains. If we can agree to these changes so quickly now, why couldn't we before?

The onus is on all of us - government and industry - to make sure we leverage the momentum created by this pandemic to reform the planning system fully so that it is ready to get Britain building again when we enter the recovery phase.

We must use this time to modernise archaic planning laws and engage more people with planning processes and data digitally.

For too long, we have stuck with a system that predates the NHS and has contributed to a decline in the growth of housing stock through tight controls on green belt land, height restrictions and reduced fiscal incentives.

This doesn't have to be the case.

It has started with going digital, but we now need to go further to modernise the planning system and make sure there are fewer and more sensible restrictions and wait times so that the hurdles of the past are overcome.

If we do that, we will truly be ready to deliver the real estate - whether offices, hospitals or the homes this country needs - once we have the government's thumbs up to leave our homes and get back to working in our offices.

Russell Pedley, director and co-founder of Assael Architecture

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