The COVID-19 pandemic has led to discussions on what shape planning should take post-crisis. Here, Prof Iain White, Prof Graham Haughton, and Dr Nuno Pinto outline how current regulations have exacerbated difficulties for some people in lockdown, discuss how opportunistic developers or politicians may seek to hijack the policy responses, and suggest solutions to ensure the post-pandemic recovery is beneficial for all.
- Current relaxed planning regulations in England risk creating near-inhospitable environments for some people in lockdown.
- There has been a move in some countries to further relax regulations to incentivise economic recovery, bypassing public scrutiny and undermining environmental protections.
- After the pandemic, planning policy must be rebuilt with fairness, transparency and accountability in mind.
- Local projects, which promote long-term growth, should be prioritised.
A wide-ranging discussion on the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic by city mayors, academics, and others, has evoked new ideas on how we live and move, and on how to transition economies to be greener and cleaner. Despite such good intentions, as the dust settles, we run the risk of returning to ‘business as usual’ and we are already seeing much new thinking side-lined, alongside a reversion to familiar narratives of ‘speed’ or ‘red-tape’. We must be cautious about altering the planning system so it can do the wrong thing more efficiently.
The cost of fast-tracking infrastructure
Under pressure for quick results, there are signs that some governments seek to short-circuit the planning system in order to expedite development. For instance, the mooted ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure stimulus in New Zealand aims to create a fast-track process, where politicians select projects and there is no opportunity for citizen involvement. Significantly, the Minister in charge said that there should be a high level of certainty that consent is given. Meanwhile, Australia’s version of ‘fast-tracking infrastructure’ sees a call not just to cut ‘red-tape’ but ‘green-tape’ too—that is, environmental regulations. In the UK, the Transport Secretary recently used the term ‘bureaucratic bindweed’ to describe rules in the current system that presumably need to be eliminated.
During the current pandemic, English local authorities were initially forced to abandon their planning committees, instead giving greater powers to officials, sometimes aided by senior local politicians, to decide on major, occasionally contentious, projects. Requirements to publicise site notices have been relaxed in England, while the Housing Secretary has announced that instead of traditional methods, local councils and developers can use social media to publicise applications to ‘unblock’ planning. This is bad news for those without social media or access to technology or data, discriminating particularly against the elderly and the most vulnerable. While some local authorities in England have now adopted virtual planning committees, many have been slow to introduce them.
Under these relaxed measures, opportunistic developers may have been emboldened by relaxed planning requirements to bring forward proposals that are likely to be locally contested, hoping this might improve their chances of slipping projects through.
We structure our discussion about improving the processes of planning under three headings: better planning before, during, and after future pandemics.
Better planning anticipating pandemics
Having now experienced social distancing and lockdown, and with the prospect of a pandemic a recurring possibility, planners need to prioritise actions that better prepare for the implications. It is clear we need better provision of both private and public space. Homes need to be built to higher standards. Under current English regulations – as a recent case in Watford revealed – it is possible to build homes without windows, a decision upheld by the planning inspectorate, against the objections of local planners and politicians. Imagine an elderly or vulnerable resident being locked-down inside such a development.
Fortunately, the considerable public outcry, media attention and political opposition appears to have seen the developer reconsider the scheme. This only goes to show the importance of proper local scrutiny of development proposals. The problem here is that the English planning system no longer does this in all cases, and fast-tracking may give more power to developers. Rather than give away more permitted development rights, we should be looking to limit them, restoring local democratic scrutiny and the rights of local residents and citizens.
Better planning during pandemics
Local authorities need clear plans in place for how planning decisions will be made in any future lockdown or enforced social distancing. Major projects must not be waved through under emergency rules, and predatory developers wishing to exploit any perceived relaxation in planning approvals need to be discouraged, perhaps by removing their right to appeal any planning decisions taken under lockdown and instead giving the public the right to appeal.
In terms of planning to exit a future pandemic-related recession, rather than relying on large scale mega-projects ushered through without adequate political scrutiny and public consultation, there is much to be said for encouraging smaller projects that emerge out of local consultation and that are open to robust challenge under effective local planning systems.
Local projects might be slightly slower to be approved, but much quicker to build than, for instance large-scale road projects. They also tend to be better fitted to the nature of places that they occur in and jobs more likely to be local.
Better planning processes, fit for rebuilding the post-pandemic world
Considering how the public expectations of transparency and fairness have been raised during the pandemic, we should also expect citizens to question the politicians who use expert advice to deflect, blame or limit meaningful opportunities for public engagement.
Over the past decade, in England and elsewhere, planning systems have been loaded in favour of developers and their advisors and against local communities. Backing up this state of affairs has been growing recourse to poorly specified technical processes which serve to bamboozle and outmanoeuvre the public.
The planning system needs to be reset, so that the language and techniques of planners, developers, and consultants are intelligible, transparent and favour honest communication between politicians, stakeholders and the public. The fear is that in the rush to rebuild, the bigger projects that are being politically favoured, tend to be complex and technical, and if they are rushed through, there will be even less space for better processes.
Rather than build in haste and repent at leisure, we need to think deeply about how the planning system can be repurposed to suit the emerging challenges for cities, not least in relation to the once-in-a-generation investment and the revised expectations from the public around transparency and fairness. Planning, like policing, is at its best when it works on the basis of consent–attempts to reduce opportunities for scrutiny, challenge and dissent threaten the legitimacy not just of planning, but the whole development process.