Where do we go from here? Trends in development and planning post-COVID-19

Rebecca Roffe

By Rebecca Roffe
Partner, Planning CMS

With COVID-19 restrictions being eased on a phased basis, attention is turning to what the world will look like post-lockdown.

In the planning and development sector, it’s likely to look very different indeed.

In some instances, trends that looked set in stone have been turned on their heads, and that could have a significant impact on those looking to encourage economic growth in the North through building and development.

Consider the recent trend towards shared-space living, particularly common in large cities like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.

When the development sector stalled in March 2020, applications for co- and micro-living schemes were flying into planning authorities. It was the hot new asset class, appealing to community-focused young professionals.

Developers may now need to re-imagine their proposals for these inherently communal schemes in a future in which social distancing of some kind will remain.

This will impact future designs, and also the viability of consents already secured.

Continued distancing requirements will also impact the attractiveness of large city centre apartment developments.

The importance of high-quality housing has become even clearer since the lockdown.

Traditional low-rise housing with private gardens will be more popular, and applications to develop office-to-residential conversions are likely to decline.

This will impact the viability and deliverability of residential developments, particularly with land for housing in short supply.

Although the impact of COVID-19 on housing supply will, undoubtedly, be a material consideration in applications or appeals, MHCLG will need to make radical changes to the NPPF if the country is going to build itself out of the economic downturn.

Green belt release will be key to housing delivery, presenting an opportunity for developers with available land to bring forward for windfall sites.

Similar issues will impact the care and retirement living sectors, which have attracted considerable investment in recent years.

Media attention during the crisis has highlighted the need to build quality homes for those in later life, with enough space to reduce the risk of viral spread.

Given the historic lack of public funding for the care sector, opportunity exists for private sector developers to provide universally improved facilities.

We hope to see planning authorities recognise the need for good quality design and increased amenities.

Hitherto accepted wisdom regarding office design will also need to be re-thought. As more people embrace working from home we don’t expect an immediate return to office life.

But when employees do return to work, office configuration immediately after lockdown may have a long-term effect on how they are built and used in future.

Co-working and hot-desking have become fashionable in recent years; the reduced floorplate made them economically and environmentally attractive.

We now envisage a scenario where offices will become both larger and more technology-friendly, able to safely house and transport separate teams and encourage digital collaboration.

Home/flexible working is likely to continue to remain the first choice for many, and there are valid public health concerns with hot-desking.

Workplace designers will need to consider the changing physical, technical, emotional and psychological needs of their occupiers.

And what of the impact on the planning permission process on this post-COVID reboot?

It’s encouraging to see MHCLG and most local planning authorities act flexibly, including allowing Section 106 obligations to be satisfied on completion or occupation only, delaying discharge of certain pre-commencement conditions, and taking a flexible approach to enforcement.

We hope government will go further by allowing permissions to be extended in time, or to make significant changes to the CIL Regulations.

These changes won’t solve the problem of a pipeline of permissions which are technically implementable, but now commercially unviable.

We hope to see a pragmatic approach taken by both planning authorities and those providing development finance.

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