Out-Law Analysis | 01 Jul 2020 | 5:13 pm | 4 min. read
Much has been said about zoning over the last couple of months. We think the idea deserves to be tested in areas where regeneration is needed most, including our town centres which are under threat as the retail sector reinvents itself. Zoning could be achieved through mechanisms such as a Local Development Order, allowing us to test radical principles without introducing wholescale change. These "freezones" could allow a wide range of uses, and developments to be tested without the normal requirements for planning consent. Aesthetic standards could be secured through design codes and the required safeguards, such as fire safety and room size, could be secured through building regulations.
Modern methods of construction have been around for a while, but the current crisis has highlighted their many benefits. Primarily, they facilitate a hybrid approach to construction, allowing much of the work to be done in controlled factory conditions. They create a much safer workplace, have less impact on the locality during construction, and deliver wider benefits such as opening up the construction industry to a more diverse workforce. They also facilitate delivery of quality homes quickly and at scale. We need to integrate them as a welcome addition to the usual delivery methods, and embrace them within the planning system.
The pandemic has highlighted the benefits of home working as well as its limitations. None of us have missed the daily commute, but we have all missed interaction with co-workers and discovered the difficulties of combining deal-making with childcare and the Darwinian struggles for internet access. In the future, our homes will need to include work-friendly spaces – perhaps the time of an internal soundproof, childproof, easily installable pod is here – and better connectivity, while offices need to be set up as creative hubs nourishing ideas and social activity while maintaining appropriate distances.
Long queues may be acceptable while the sun is shining, but they will make shopping a singularly unpleasant experience when autumn looms. The cultural sector is going through an even more challenging time. Both sectors are evolving to provide much more in terms of digital experience, but the sectors could also combine to provide a vibrant hybrid offering for a new kind of high street. For example, whilst enjoying a coffee you could browse real clothes and watch a theatre production and then attend a drop-in health hub or even a service of worship, all in one combined social and retail space. Thiswould give a mentally and physically healthy alternative to being online, without queueing in British drizzle.
The dominance of the car as a form of transport means that most of our roads and streets have been designed around them. This has certainly made it easier for car owners to get around, but it has also contributed to air pollution, the obesity crisis and gridlocks in many city centres. The government recently brought in emergency powers for local authorities in England to make experimental traffic orders, allowing the roads to be reclaimed, almost overnight, with a different, pedestrian-first, priority and has just changed the law to allow trials of e-scooters. This new hierarchy should be encouraged wherever possible, so that streets become spaces where pedestrians, pedal power and micro-mobility vehicles take priority over cars and public transport.
We started 2020 with the assumption that the working day would involve a long-seated commute followed by a seated day at the office and another seated commute home. Working from home has reminded us that exercise doesn't have to come in the form of a gym session, but can be built into the day. In the future, if we are to secure the health of urban populations and optimise our own physical and mental health too, exercise will need to become part of the daily commute, especially in large cities where crowding onto public transport simply won't be an option for a while. We need more and better cycle provision, and for that to be a priority in the developments of the future.
The last three months have shown that digital consultation can both replace analogue methods and in many cases improve on them, allowing for participation by a much wider range of people in much more innovative ways. This creativity needs to be built into the planning system on a permanent basis as it can only improve the quality of developments and decision making. However, it should not be at the expense of people who, for whatever reason, don't benefit from full connectivity. We also need to ensure that the legal principles of access and fairness that underpin all consultations remain, even if they were established in an analogue world.
We were all impressed by how quickly many councils evolved into digital planning authorities. All over the country long evenings in council chambers were replaced by banks of faces on a computer screen. The government's response was relatively speedy and practical too. This momentum must not be lost. The Local Government 1972 Act is creaking at the seams and there is a limit to how many times the government can retrofit it to serve the needs of the present and of the future. There is a need for a new, modern governance framework based on the democratic principles of the past, but also accommodating the needs of the present and anticipating those of the future – such as algorithmic opacity.
We now live in a world where members of the House of Lords are reminded on a daily basis to mute the chat function, and planning judgments are handed down remotely by email. The Planning Inspectorate was initially slow to respond, but has recently announced that it is intending to hold at least 20 hearings and inquiries and an additional 15 hearings for national infrastructure projects in June. The Business and Planning Bill will allow them much more flexibility in the future too, based on a 'what works best' approach dependent on the circumstances. In the future, we should move from the currently linear process of document exchange and physical hearings, to a dynamic interface of real and virtual hearings, oral and written evidence, all fed by real-time data.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that the future is digital and that we need to be ready to make the most of its benefits while being alive to, and mitigating, its harm. Artificial intelligence – in particular machine learning – is likely to proliferate within the planning system, and increasingly inform planning decisions. This could benefit those decisions in a range of ways, but it also raises issues such as algorithmic bias and explainability. We need to be able to assess and mitigate its impacts while maximising its many potential benefits.
19 Jun 2020