How UK local authorities can use planning to kick start economic recovery

Out-Law Analysis | 19 Jun 2020 | 3:29 pm | 4 min. read

Local authorities are facing severe challenges caused by coronavirus and must find a way to reopen town and city centres to kick-start the economy. There are ways that they can harness the planning system to help with this task, even in the face of uncertain public finances.

We have talked to local authorities to understand the challenges they face and what some solutions to them might be.

Funds

The pandemic has already had a significant impact on local authority finances. Lockdown has been an unexpected expense and income from sources such as parking and commercial investments has reduced. Many councils are cash-strapped and some are facing difficult decisions around headcount.

Councils have a legal duty to maintain a balanced budget, however budget deficits will be unavoidable unless central government fully reimburses local authorities for their losses. It seems inevitable that authorities will need to review their financial strategy, corporate priorities and budgets to channel resources where they are most needed. Ongoing engagement through strong local partnerships will be essential to identify where spending should be directed.

Many authorities are already accessing emergency funds made available by central government, such as the £250 million ‘active travel fund’ for reallocation of road space for cyclists and pedestrians; and the £50m ‘reopening high streets safely fund’ for measures to establish a safe trading environment for business and customers. For those authorities shortlisted to benefit from the wider £3.6 billion Towns Fund, there may be more central funds to come.

Reallocation of road space

Local authorities have a real opportunity now to reshape towns and cities and to drive behavioural change by embedding cycling and walking habits in a way and at a pace that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

Work to create pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements and cycle and bus-only corridors is already happening. This is in part thanks to emergency legislation to speed up Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) and also because of the strict timescales within which grants from the 'active travel fund' must be spent. However, authorities do need to be mindful that the public sector equality duty still applies to temporary TROs. The needs of disabled people and those with protected characteristics must therefore be properly considered when proposing changes to the road network to avoid legal challenges.

New guidance states that authorities should monitor and evaluate temporary TROs, with a view to making them permanent after 18 months. Most temporary TROs made in response to Covid-19 have been driven exclusively by highway departments. Any conversion to permanency will need to involve consultation with other departments, notably planning, which may have different ideas about urban design, movement and streetscape. The work to consider how these measures might be made permanent should begin now as part of a wider town master-planning exercise, bearing in mind that future demand for road space will be impacted hugely by the availability of public transport capacity.

The merits of introducing congestion charging to deter traffic on busy routes in cities beyond London could be explored, as well as the provision of low cost out-of-centre parking with demarcated walking, running and cycling routes into the centre. Such measures would provide further support towards a long-term shift to active travel, bringing environmental and health benefits to our town and city centres.

Encouraging development and investment

Many authorities we have spoken to would like to embed new or amended policies within their development plans as soon as possible to kick start recovery. However, the length of the process to review local plans means that quicker alternatives may be needed to encourage investment, growth and, in the case of high streets, survival in the medium term. Such measures would be warmly welcomed by the private sector. With the bleak outlook for retail in particular, landlords will be looking for viable ways to repurpose high street and shopping centre assets as tenants enter into administration or announce they will not be re-opening stores.

Supplementary planning documents (SPDs)

SPDs cannot introduce new policies, however they could be used to provide clarity on how existing development plan policy will be applied in light of Covid-19, for example on interim uses. These might encourage the use of empty buildings and stalled development sites to generate income and provide wider benefits to the community. Drive-in cinema is a temporary use being considered by one authority we spoke to.

Local development orders (LDOs)

LDOs could be used to grant permission for changes of use within a high street, for infrastructure to improve digital connectivity, or for new development on identified sites. LDOs do not need to be supported by existing planning policy, and there is no need to submit a draft to the Secretary of State, making it a comparatively streamlined process. The government is expected to outline further support for zoning tools such as LDOs later this year in its Planning White Paper. However, there is nothing to prevent councils from using this existing but under-used planning tool now.

Permission in principle (PiPs)

PiPs are available to establish the suitability of sites for residential development, leaving the technical details of the proposed development to be assessed at a later stage. PiPs can also include subservient or compatible commercial development. There are two routes. The first is for private developers to apply for PiPs under the PiP Order. The second is for authorities to enter land on Part 2 of Brownfield Land Registers which, subject to compliance with the regulations, automatically attracts PiP.

An application for PiP can only be made for nine homes or less. PiP achieved via entry on Part 2 of a Brownfield Land Register is not limited to minor development but does require an existing allocation for residential development to be in place. Either of these routes could be attractive when considering the rising number of vacant retail units. University cities in particular could take advantage of new opportunities for student accommodation in the centre, which would also relieve pressure on much-needed family housing.

Review of Article 4 Directions

Local Authorities could also undertake a review of their Article 4 Directions with a view to modifying or cancelling some and allowing permitted development to take place. This would be a swift way of helping businesses, especially retail and leisure, to adapt to the changing requirements of consumers.

Planning applications

Some survey work and other assessments usually submitted in support of planning applications either cannot be carried out because of social distancing measures, or cannot be relied upon because any data gathered, such as traffic counts or noise assessments, will not represent a "normal" baseline. Local planning authorities can help to unlock stalled planning applications by having a clear position on what baseline data will be accepted.

This might include alternative survey methods such as using drones or satellite imagery, or a digital baseline calibrated by surveys and historical data. The authority's list of planning application requirements should be updated to reflect any permissible alternatives and, for EIA applications, a full justification for any alternative approaches should be included in a scoping opinion.