Planning matters: Fighting coronavirus in an interconnected world

April 01 2020
Planning matters: Fighting coronavirus in an interconnected world

With Chris Gosling

YOU don‘t need me to tell you that the world is facing larger concerns than planning at the moment. As we are getting our heads around new concepts like social distancing, working at home, self-isolation and even the difference between what is essential and non-essential, planning can seem like a sideshow. One of the things that we are finding is that what one person does can affect others, most likely unknown to them. The individual and collective actions of everyone can mean the difference between life and death, but not necessarily for themselves. Under the circumstances, although evolving government policy has been at times complex and confusing, it makes sense for us all the follow it – if in doubt, erring on the side of caution.

This inter-connectedness between us all ensures that there is some interaction between Covid-19 and planning. At least to the extent that we can all play our part in delaying the epidemic. In practical terms, the government has already advised enforcement officers to take a lenient line with complaints about planning conditions being breached when it comes to delivery times to supermarkets. This is clearly a common sense matter, given the necessity of dealing with the continuing effects of panic-buying and stockpiling. These are extraordinary times, and I am sure that those living close to supermarkets would show some understanding if their sleep is interrupted. However, at the same time I cannot believe that already over-stretched enforcement services would prioritise such complaints in the first place.

Public houses have been forced to close, with attendant social and economic impacts. As a response to this, for a 12-month period permitted development rights are, at the time of writing, about to be amended to allow pubs to operate as hot food takeaways, without having to apply for planning permission. In the cases where pubs had a food offering, this may hold some hope of diversification, which could help businesses avoid going under, but organising delivery services will be critical in the light of the lockdown provisions. For pubs that don’t have kitchens, the investment required to change the use, sidestepping the need for planning permission notwithstanding, will no doubt be prohibitive.

There is also a significant question mark over construction sites. At the time of writing, building work is being allowed to continue, with social distancing being practised. It seems that this is likely to change at some stage.

I don’t have answers and I don’t wish to criticise what the government is doing under great pressure. The coronavirus crisis is the biggest that humanity has faced in peacetime. The response has to be fast, timely, appropriate and, above all, effective. It is hardly surprising that the government‘s response and decision-making has raised questions over detail. These decisions are a matter of judgement, but based on the available scientific evidence.

I very much hope that the tide will turn soon and we can all start looking forward to life returning to normal. And not some new kind of normal. That future is in everyone’s hands. Keep safe and do the right thing.

Chris Gosling