What a whirlwind couple of weeks.

My last blog considered the challenges facing our new Chancellor and how he might respond to them in his first Budget on 11 March.

14 days later and that Budget is a long and distant memory; the COVID-19 financial package ripped up almost instantly and the government’s measures changing daily as the virus takes hold.

Challenging times – not least for someone taking up a new position of such authority and responsibility, and in today’s world of instantaneous media (and social media) analysis and scrutiny.

But you don’t have to be new for a job to be difficult at the best of times.

Spare a thought then for Steve Quartermain, the Chief Planner at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government – a post he has held since 2008 but will be relinquishing very soon.

When it was announced in January he would be stepping down, surely he can’t have imagined we would be where we are now.

It’s not as if he was having a quiet end to his tenure as it was, with issues around building safety, mounting pressure to increase the scale and rate of housing approvals and delivery, alongside efforts to ensure these were high-quality buildings and places.  Not to mention the long-awaited (still) Planning White Paper.

Today saw the publication of his final planning update newsletter, which is focused primarily on providing local planning authorities with guidance on how to operate in the current crisis.

The message is simple: get on with it.

Okay, that may be oversimplifying it.  A bit.  However, the letter (just like government) is clear that there are ways and means for planning departments to carry on doing their jobs.  The virus is not an excuse.  So how then?

Well, many of us are working from home (perhaps for the first time) and finding we can be very productive.  (Amazing – should do it more).  Local authority planners are being told to do the same.  Simple.

Importantly, the letter makes it clear social distancing shouldn’t prevent discussion and consultation from going ahead.  This is encouraging and absolutely right.  A colleague covered this topic in a recent blog and described how Camargue is supporting clients by continuing to deliver consultations despite current restrictions.

But what about decisions – especially on planning applications?  Technology again features here and, one day, should enable planning committees to meet online.  However, legislation doesn’t currently allow this, so in the meantime authorities are being encouraged to delegate planning decisions to senior officers.

A pragmatic approach and some authorities are going down this route already – Manchester City Council is expected to give its chief executive these powers imminently.  However, it raises interesting issues around public participation in the decision-making process and removes a key opportunity taken up by so many.  I suspect lawyers will be following this closely.

On appeals, inquiries, local plans and enforcement, the message is the same: You have the mechanisms in place to get the job done.

Of course, there is some recognition that timetables may need to slip but the emphasis is on keeping the wheels turning.  This is understandable and should be the approach we’re all applying at this unprecedented time.

However, in a world where local authority planning departments were already at full stretch, let alone coping with mass disruption to everyday life, the letter is hardly the reassuring message and reinforcement they would have wanted.

The LGA and wider planning sector was encouraged by the Budget and subsequent comments on planning reform, and will be hoping the current crisis doesn’t derail those commitments.

Dan Knight

Dan Knight is an associate director at Camargue

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