Five ways in which Covid-19 is changing the management of council planning teams

The pandemic is likely to trigger significant change at local authorities, Mark Wilding finds.

(Pic: Getty Images)
(Pic: Getty Images)

Home working; remote site visits; virtual planning committees - the coronavirus pandemic has already radically shifted the way in which local authority planning work is conducted.

How many of these changes are here to stay, and how else might council planning teams need to adapt as the nation adjusts to the post-coronavirus era? Local authority planning chiefs, policy experts and consultants to the public sector tell Planning how they see the business of development management and policy-making changing over the next two years.

1. A drop in applications is likely to place pressure on planning team budgets

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to hit council finances hard. In early July, the Local Government Association warned that councils in England could face a budget shortfall totalling £7.4 billion in this financial year. Planning departments could be particularly badly affected, says Finn Williams, co-founder and chief executive at Public Practice, a social enterprise aimed at boosting public sector built environment expertise. According to a survey of 22 local authorities conducted by the organisation in April, some are expecting planning application fee income to drop by up to 45 per cent in the next six to 12 months. Williams says: “Authorities are monitoring their fee income very closely.”

Brett Leahy, head of planning and building control at the London Borough of Redbridge, is among the planning chiefs keeping a keen eye on application numbers. Major applications have stayed stable, he says, but the number of householder applications has been down by close to 30 per cent in the first five months of the year. That’s a potential problem for a council that expects its planning service to cover its costs. “We’re required to be self-sufficient,” says Leahy, adding that his authority hit that target for the first time last year. “So the drop in householder applications is a concern for me.”

Redbridge is far from alone in this predicament. According to Public Practice analysis of National Audit Office data, councils used income generation to cover 37 per cent of their total planning costs in 2010-11, but by 2017-18 this number had risen to 54 per cent. Richard Blyth, head of policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute, says the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an existing problem. “To suppose that the planning system can be funded entirely by development control income is absurd when you have to write local plans as well,” he says. “If there’s a drop in fee income, that is a very serious issue for local authorities.”

It remains to be seen how long any downturn in application numbers will last. Marilyn Smith, head of planning and assurance at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, is hopeful normal levels of activity will resume quickly. “In the first few weeks, the householder applications went down but it seems to be coming back,” she says. “At the end of the year, it will probably be lower than it was the previous year, but I don’t think it’s going to be disastrous.” Nevertheless, some council planning chiefs have begun making the case internally that planning teams need to be sufficiently resourced to help lead the country out of any economic downturn. “Planning is at the heart of the recovery,” says Leahy. “So I’m making those arguments already.”

2. Many planning officers will continue to work from home, which raises challenges for managers

Councils had to rapidly adapt to remote working practices when social distancing was imposed in March. Even as those rules begin to be lifted, councils say planning officers are likely to remain at home for several months. “We’ve been told we’re going to be working remotely until at least September,” says Smith. Likewise, Tammy Stokes, interim director for regeneration and growth at Sandwell Council and spokeswoman for senior officer body the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, says other departments, less able to work remotely, are being prioritised over planning teams for a return to the office.

Williams says the shift to remote working has been less disruptive than many expected. “Everyone has almost surprised themselves with how quickly they have adapted,” he says. In his view, it is unlikely that old patterns of working will ever return. “You can’t assume that everyone can come into the office,” he says. “This isn’t going to go away in a matter of months.”

Paul Seddon, director of planning and regeneration at Nottingham City Council and spokesman for management of planning at local authority body the Planning Officers Society, says remote working has ushered in other long-lasting changes. “I‘d wanted to get us to paperless planning applications for some time,” he says. “Change is sometimes difficult to make happen. But that’s been achieved now.”

That said, Seddon says remote working also poses new challenges for planning managers. “Development management colleagues benefit from that immediacy of colleagues, the closeness and regularity of being in the same place a significant amount of time during each working week,” he says. “How do we keep consistency of decision-making if we don’t have people in the same place?”

Ensuring staff welfare will also be a growing concern for team leaders and managers, says Marilyn Smith. “You do need to be looking out for people. Lockdown is affecting people in different ways,” she says. Stokes agrees: “There’s increased pressure on managers and team leaders around the welfare of staff, particularly around mental health and loneliness issues.”

3. The pandemic is likely to change staffing roles and where resources are focused

In the early days of the pandemic response, research conducted by planning consultancy Lichfields and the Local Government Association’s Planning Advisory Service found that close to half of local authorities had redeployed at least some planning staff to emergency positions, both inside and outside planning. Planning chiefs say those staff members have since begun to return. “There’s been no suggestion of further redeployment,” says Stokes of the situation at Sandwell Council.

Attention is now turning to how officers can best use their skills and expertise in the longer term as councils navigate their way out of the crisis, says Williams. Public Practice is currently recruiting its latest group of planning and built environment professionals for public sector placements. “It’s always a really fascinating way of telling what local authorities need,” says Williams. “We have interest around economic development, regeneration, town centres and high streets for the next cohort.” Stokes says that in the early days of the pandemic, some of Sandwell’s planning policy team were temporarily reassigned to mobilise local businesses to donate personal protection equipment and consider switching to PPE manufacturing. But continued or further reassignments are unlikely, she said.

Leahy says councils may ask staff to take on a greater range of responsibilities. “I don’t think the future is having demarcated roles,” he says. “We probably need to start looking at merging roles so there’s more flex and more resilience.” Blyth suggests councils may look at how planners can help them make the most of their land and property to tackle any looming financial pressures. “Careful use of planning and built environment expertise would be very wise,” he says.

4. New working practices could create challenges for public participation

A major challenge that has faced all local authorities since the pandemic struck is how to continue making planning decisions while maintaining public accountability. The widespread uptake of virtual planning committees aims to provide a solution to this problem and represents one of the biggest shifts to have taken place in the sector during the coronavirus outbreak. But even virtual planning committees, alongside the use of delegated decision-making by senior officers, have prompted concerns among some campaign groups and opposition councillors about restricted public participation.

Councils have responded to the pandemic in different ways. Smith says that in Barking and Dagenham, the planning team has maintained an element of offline working. “You still need site notices,” she says. “Letters still need to be sent. I can’t see that changing. If you’re proposing a six-metre extension, you have to let the neighbour know.” To assist authorities, the English and Scottish governments have introduced measures to suspend or relax publicity requirements for planning applications during the pandemic, such as the need to post site notices or publish newspaper ads. Smith notes that the measures are intended to apply only when councils are “unable” to fulfil the typical requirements, but Barking and Dagenham had one member of staff who would go to the office to print and send out neighbour notifications.

Seddon says the coming months will require councils to review protocols they have put in place in response to Covid-19; examining what can be maintained in the longer term and whether the public’s role in the planning process has been protected. “We’re working through what the public expectation will be in the development management process,” he says. “We’re at the response phase where people are accepting [of these temporary measures]. As we come out of the lockdown, I think that expectation will need to be understood.”

Some council officers worry that measures which arose out of necessity, such as virtual committees or decisions made under delegated authority, could be subject to legal challenges on the basis that publicity or engagement procedures were not correctly followed. “You would hope that it isn’t something that is used maliciously,” says Seddon. “But we know many planning decisions polarise opinion and there are understandably strongly felt opinions on either side.”

Philip Smith, planning director at consultancy LUC, says local authorities may see an upturn in public engagement in planning policy and greater use of technology to enable consultation. “I think there’s a renewed sense of community in this country,” he says. “Maybe there could be more interest in neighbourhood planning in the future than there has been.”

5. Policy-makers will need to respond to new post-Covid-19 economic and social priorities

As the country emerges from lockdown, there have already been examples of local authorities using planning to facilitate economic recovery. In June, Westminster City Council set out plans to temporarily close roads and allow restaurants to place dining tables in the street to boost the hospitality sector.

Stokes says other authorities are likely to follow suit, asking: “Can we [do something] as regeneration and planning officers [to] think about our spaces more flexibly? How can we make the most of the situation?” Seddon adds: “It’s the recovery planning that planners are very good at. Whether it’s master planning for a particular city centre, whether it’s a development brief for a site that suddenly has a changed requirement, we need to be really fleet of foot.”

In the longer term, Williams says councils may need to grapple with demographic changes and a shift in council priorities triggered by the pandemic. “We won’t really understand the demographic shift for a while,” he says. “But, at least anecdotally, it does seem like this could result in a slight rebalancing of the concentration of people in a few urban centres to a slightly more dispersed model.”

Jo Davis, managing director of planning, development and regeneration at consultancy Avison Young, says the shifts taking place in society will create challenges for policy-makers. She says the disruption to daily life could hamper efforts to gather accurate evidence to support local plans. “The evidence base that informs local plan decisions will have to come with a big Covid-19 warning,” she says. “That will impact the policies put in place to judge applications over the next five to ten years.”

Local authority planning teams may find themselves at the forefront of efforts to reshape society for the better as the coronavirus crisis fades. Davis says that will require weighing up a wide range of factors, including council finances, infrastructure needs, and shifting regeneration priorities. She says: “That’s the big picture work that needs to be done very, very quickly.”

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