COVID-19: Digitalisation of the planning system

The beginning of the COVID-19 crisis marked a turning point in the property and planning industry. Local authorities across the nation were confronted with the harsh reality of being unable to hold in-person committee meetings to determine planning applications, and developers unable to consult with local communities on their proposals. As a traditional and arguably outdated system, this led to concern across the sector that COVID-19 would halt planning decisions and block progress indefinitely.

Nevertheless, social distancing has led to the swift uptake of online platforms across numerous industries. Whilst ‘virtual committees’ were almost unheard of pre-COVID-19, local authorities shortly realised their traditional governance processes would need to transition to the modern world if the property industry were to continue to operate. From the inception of lockdown announced by Boris Johnson on 23rd March, Cicero/AMO has followed the trials of virtual committees, beginning with one of the first attempts in the London Borough of Waltham Forest in early April.

Whilst planning committees have been adapting to the digitalised world since early April, the turning point was marked recently on 14th May when the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published updated guidance on addressing planning matters during COVID-19. It was announced that in support of house building and development, ‘the use of digital technology and virtual meetings should become the norm in planning casework’. The Government guidance sought to put into practice what local authorities had recognised would need to be the way forward, lubricating the wheels of the planning system and allowing for temporary measures to help ease operations.

Under these regulations, authorities now have flexibility to take ‘other reasonable steps’ to publicise applications if they cannot be discharged through the existing requirements for site notices, notifications or newspaper publicity. These steps can include the use of social media and other electronic communications and must, the Government outlined, be proportionate to the scale and nature of the proposed development. It was also confirmed that if local newspapers are not circulating in their area, authorities should seek to use local online news portals in the first instance.

The Government’s updated guidance therefore consolidates the transition of traditional planning into the modern world and highlights a pivotal moment in the history of local government. As a result, the consultation and engagement landscape has been revolutionised. All consultation strategies will now require a careful balance of traditional and virtual elements to engage with the public but could, overall, lead to an improved planning system in the long-term.

Get in Touch

Yashvee Kalia

Account Executive