Planning during COVID

19 June 2020 - by Gráinne Walsh

The recent COVID-19 lockdown has seen many industries forced to rapidly change the way they operate. And just as in 2008 when the last recession took hold, the planning and construction industry felt the sharp edge of the economic slowdown, so too have they been challenged by recent events.

In April the Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon MLA, announced changes to the planning system to allow for major applications to be progressed during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This announcement amended the requirements for an applicant to hold a face-to-face public consultation, with a number of new measures introduced from 1st May.

This change highlights that planning will play a major role in the economic recovery following the pandemic.  The Minister has recognised the need to ensure there are ‘shovel ready’ applications through the planning system.  Aligned with this, it is imperative that the construction industry is able to meet the government guidelines for working on a construction site. At a recent meeting of the Committee for the Economy, the Construction Employers Federation highlighted the steps their members had taken, sending a clear message that they are ready to play their role in the economic recovery.

The new planning environment includes the introduction of ‘virtual’ public consultations, where members of the public can voice their opinion of a planning application using an online process.  This has included applicants hosting virtual meetings, allowing them to talk through an application and recording opinions.

This is supported by a letter invited views to all affected households to ensure that those who don’t have access to online can have their say.

These temporary measures have allowed for major applications to continue to progress, however, Council Planning Committees still need to meet for decisions to be taken. It is also important to add that not all councils have moved to this new virtual model, with some holding meetings virtually, while others have suspended their meetings during the height of the pandemic.

In any event, this has shown how the planning system can be adapted to meet very real and testing challenges.  While the changes which were brought in are temporary in nature to respond to COVID-19, there are opportunities, such as enhanced public participation in the consultation process, which councils should seek to consider the benefits of in the long-term. If this proves to be a successful approach, there is an opportunity to “build back better”, improve our planning process and ultimately support an inclusive economy that works for all.