Heads of Planning Scotland: COVID-19 and the planning system



A fall in the number of planning applications combined with the postponement of the expected fee increase in June may result in longer-term effects on the planning system, writes Heads of Planning Scotland.

We hope you are all keeping well in these difficult times. COVID-19 has brought with it significant changes to how all sectors work, and planning authorities across the country have put in great effort to provide as much business continuity as possible in this changing environment. HOPS is committed to assisting planning authorities by sharing good practice and providing support. We are also working closely with the Scottish Government, COSLA and the RTPI to do this. A survey of all planning authorities was recently carried out to capture a snapshot in time of working practice and procedures the planning authorities have put in place. 

New ways of working have arisen from the challenges placed upon staff by the lock-down. While we cannot expect to see services acting in a full business as usual manner we have seen great adaptation to provide as much service as possible within the constraints they now face. We have seen innovative solutions being implemented across the board. We do note some redeployment of planning staff, usually around specialist functions such as GIS staff, who have been called upon to assist front line workers. The vast majority of planning staff remain in post and have adapted to working from home. The organisation of planning committees and local review bodies meetings is being addressed by some authorities moving to online meeting platforms with subsequent recordings made available for public viewing. Approximately 33% of Planning Committees and 20% of Local Review Bodies are being carried out in this manner, with many authorities looking to review the position at a future date. 

Regarding other services, the majority of authorities (75%) are currently able to issue Neighbour Notifications, either through central administration support or through 3rd party services, with remaining authorities looking into methods to make this possible. We do not have conclusive data or solutions on issues which require restricted activity such as placing site notices and conducting site visits. At the time of the survey, there was no Scottish Government guidance on public consultation so we do not have comprehensive data to report back on. However, there were several examples of good practice using online tools such as Common Place and Social Pinpoint as an interim methods for engagement.

At this moment there has been no significant drop in planning application numbers and officers are continuing to accept, validate and process applications as normal. One finding of our work has been the difficulties presented in accepting and validating paper applications at this time, while approximately half of planning authorities are doing this, many are unable to do so. This has highlighted the efficiencies and benefits of online applications, HOPS hope this is something that can be embraced further coming out of the lock-down situation. As the number of applications will inevitably decrease over the next few months, there will be a knock-on effect in fee income. Planning authorities rely on fee income to function, and combined with the postponement of the expected fee increase in June there may be longer-term effects on the system. The HOPS position remains that the planning system needs to be appropriately resourced to function for all parties. We intend to conduct research work in June to track the application numbers and income for planning authorities.

These events have also given us time to take stock in how people look at their surroundings. Calls for more easily accessible greenspace, methods of implementing active travel and considerations for public health in planning decisions have all been brought to light. The importance of good design and listening to the needs of communities has never been so important. Planning authorities have an important role to play in the delivery of economic recovery plans and the future shape of our communities.

  • Read all of our articles relating to COVID-19 here.


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