26 May 2020

How should town planning respond to coronavirus?


Flexibility will be crucial to restore the vitality of our urban spaces in these exceptional times. We have seen major disruption across all property sectors and our existing town planning framework is not equipped to address the dynamic occupier shifts that will result.

Presently high streets are quiet; some will rebound, others will never be the same again. The office market is also likely to change dramatically, demand for logistics space is set to grow further and working from home under Covid-19 has cut through outdated and linear definitions of living, working and relaxing spaces.

Businesses and people will require new space solutions, shining the spotlight on a planning system that remains largely unchanged since the 1940s and is in dire need of overhaul and simplification.

The Local Development Framework, with its 10-year-plus lifespan, is clearly too slow to react, and should be scrapped. We need a planning policy that can respond far more quickly and positively to change.

Existing permitted development rights (PDR) have released significant new residential space and should, I believe, be extended. But can we overcome the criticisms of rabbit-hutch developments and urban slums within current planning constraints?

I would suggest relaxing the obligation to build within the existing fabric to allow new purpose-built, well-designed residential units under PDR. Open-plan offices often don’t lend themselves to conversion given their restrictive floorplates, long corridors and window configuration. Better to pull down outmoded buildings and start afresh.

Restrictive Article 4 limitations should be overturned to reflect the decline in office and retail demand. Let’s unleash the full potential of development to pump-prime economic activity and bring people into urban spaces not just to work, eat and shop but also to live and thrive.

Commuted payments should also be extended to avoid unpopular pepper-potting of affordable units. Neither private developers nor affordable housing providers favour this uncomfortable mix of tenures. For affordable housing groups, it can be more costly and unwieldy to manage a small number of units in a private development than a separate, potentially larger site they can control themselves.

The countryside too has its role to play. Should the green belt continue to dictate that sites with poor landscape value on the periphery of towns and cities are incapable of development? Sympathetic schemes can enhance the landscape if they include amenity space and areas for nature to flourish.

We can both protect what is environmentally valuable and allow the release of inferior land for housing supply. Brownfield sites in towns cannot single-handedly solve our housing supply shortage.

Planning must adapt and evolve to meet future needs, otherwise recovery post-Covid-19 will be strangled. Now is the time to embrace different modes of living with good design and flexibility of tenure that reflect our increasing desire to reduce travel and work smarter and greener.

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Peter Coldbreath

Development Consultancy

Partner (Head of Crawley/Gatwick Office)

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