Flora Samuel is professor of architecture in the built environment at the University of Reading’s new School of Architecture, and a Quality of Life Foundation board member. Here, she writes about what effect the pandemic might have on the government’s new planning white paper.

How do we build more resilience in our communities? This is something I’ve been pondering over the past couple of months. 

Between June and September 2020, before the second wave of lockdowns, I undertook a series of phone calls with a range of stakeholders on behalf of the UK Centre for Collaborative Housing Evidence (CACHE) to assess the impact on planning during COVID-19 pandemic. The interviewed stakeholders were drawn largely from government, local government and housing providers across the UK, and coincided with the UK Government’s white paper entitled Planning for the Future, released August 2020. 

The intersection of the two events: the pandemic and the planning white paper – have critical lessons for the way forward. What the conversations have highlighted most of all are the many hurdles around resourcing, technology and changing priorities that we need to clear before we can move forward with confidence.

Past changes to the planning system to accelerate economic growth have been shown not to work, but planning is too important to be done hastily. Given the likelihood of a recession, great care needs to be taken with the use of scant resources.

If done well, innovations in planning, and spin offs from it, could create a range of new products, services and tools that would benefit both the built environment and the commercial interests of Britain as a whole, delivering on social, environmental and economic value. 

But planning departments lack the technology and know-how to develop the necessary tools to deliver Planning for the Future, leaving the floor open to unscrupulous development. “Although the government’s promised all this money, we’ve not seen any of it yet and I’m not sure we’re going to get it,” one interviewee said about paying for the emergency measures that they had had to put in place.

Historically, local Development Plans, at the core of Planning for the Future, have been critically under-resourced and are fundamentally unprepared to deliver on promises due to decades of cuts. Worries about where the money would come from to pay for them are clearly profound in cash-strapped local authorities often entirely focused on savings for fear of going bankrupt. And COVID is only making things worse. “A focus on savings and little else has made it very difficult to capitalise on opportunities presented by the pandemic to develop new ways of working,” said another.

Moreover, local plans should not be simplified to focus on ‘growth’, ‘renewal ‘and ‘protected’ – the headings they propose – but instead focus on delivering measurable outcomes such as the triple bottom line of sustainability: social, environmental, economic value. 

Most interviewees were adamant that the Climate Change Emergency had not been forgotten and were hopeful that the pandemic would assist in addressing it. This would align seamlessly with Treasury Green Book and Construction Innovation Council outcomes-based procurement initiatives as well as the National Planning Policy Framework (social, environmental, economic). “At some point government will need to look at what works, not necessarily for the planning system but for the environment generally,” one interviewee said. 

Yet the fallout from COVID is only going to exacerbate existing problems. And the limitations of public consultation are becoming increasingly stark, despite what some may say about the potential benefits of digitisation.“We’re having next week our first planning meeting online for the planning officers, and legal officers are recommending we should suspend public consultation because of the difficulty we’re getting with members of the public to speak,” warned one planning officer. “They made a point, but surely members of the public could record a three minute voice recording, or even if they do it, and send that in so we can all see that and hear that…But that’s just a way of keeping the public out…one further step away from public consultation.” 

The pandemic has highlighted fragility in our systems. As we have embraced new technologies to work together, so should we find sustainable solutions for our communities to secure greener economic stability. If resilience starts at home, then there is no better time to explore new ways of working and communicating from that very environment. As long as we’re clear who’s paying the bills.