How coronavirus will impact the future built environment is currently a hot topic. There has been much discussion predicting likely changes around movement of people, such as streets that give greater emphasis to pedestrians and improved infrastructure for cycling.
Others have predicted a resurgence of services and centres within commuter towns and villages as more people work from home – likely to require intervention in the form of funding and regeneration strategy. Saturday’s funding announcement for walking and cycling measures confirms the Government will be looking to local authorities to make permanent changes.
Government has announced a Lockdown Easing Plan for the re-opening of businesses and society. This includes a phased re-opening for schools and some non-essential shops in June and of remaining businesses such as pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, beauty salons, places of worship and cinemas in July.
There will be many new considerations for businesses and individuals to now consider such as staggered working patterns and the layout and size of operational space that will be required to incorporate social distancing measures – seemingly here to stay for the time being.
With businesses large and small preparing for a gradual easing of lockdown, many will be seeking to adapt their business models and require greater flexibility for future operations. Indeed, I’ve already had planning queries from businesses looking for advice on what permissions or variations will be needed in order for them to adapt premises and operations to continue trading as the circumstances change.
In order to adapt business models and to open safely, businesses will need to carefully review existing planning consents in case formal changes are required. There is the question of how quickly overstretched local planning authorities will be able to determine such applications, and how flexible they can be. This will be imperative for businesses to remain trading.
Hopefully, a pragmatic approach will prevail with regard to making use of retrospective planning applications. The Government has already urged local planning authorities to use their discretion on the enforcement of planning conditions which hinder the effective response to COVID-19 and restrictions on food and other essential deliveries at this time.
Obviously, such a strategy is not without risks, thus businesses thinking about this option would be well-advised to seek pre-application advice to establish whether proposals are likely to be acceptable.
The Government quickly made changes to the planning system at the start of lockdown. More have been announced today including allowing smaller developers to temporarily defer payment of the ‘community infrastructure levy’ (CIL) to local authorities. Another change allows local authorities to publicise planning applications through social media.
We will all be waiting to see if any further changes may be made by the Government to help businesses re-open safely. Indeed, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has already lobbied Government to provide time extensions on planning permissions set to expire during the pandemic.
It seems inevitable that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to be felt in the public consciousness for generations, shaping businesses and our built environment indefinitely. It is therefore crucial that local authorities are empowered to be able to quickly adapt to the circumstances they will now face.