While the nation’s primary focus has rightly been fixed on the health and wellbeing of its population, for businesses and the property industry there remains a concerted effort to maintain business as usual.

Although the human species is hugely adaptable, the effects of COVID-19 on the long-term health of the economy, as well as everyone’s physical and mental health, is considerable. Getting the economy back on track is a growing concern, and the planning system has a vital role to play.

The Chancellor’s pre-lockdown Budget on 11 March 2020 was clear evidence of the importance that this Government places on the development sector, with over £600bn being committed to transport, infrastructure and housing. Those of us involved in the planning industry have a responsibility to help deliver these targets.

The Coronavirus Act, 2020 has brought in important changes to how Councils can run, permitting them to hold virtual meetings and flexing the rules to allow the statutory planning process to continue without undue delays. This has, and will continue to be, supplemented with various statutory instruments and guidance issued by the Government. Once this happens, developers will be asking what this means for their development pipeline; is this business as usual?

Public engagement lies at the heart of planning, both in terms of policy formulation and development management, so how this part of the process is navigated over this period will be key for developers and local authorities. How will local planning authorities fulfil their statutory requirement to prepare a Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) (s18(1) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004)? In turn how do applicants satisfy the statutory requirement of the relevant Council’s SCI? Failure to comply with either can be a feeding ground for judicial review. Having said that, it would surely be a brave individual to mount a legal challenge in the current climate if it can be demonstrated that best endeavours were pursued on all sides.

COVID-19 aside, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to public engagement and different platforms for consultation have to adapt to differing geographical and demographic factors on a case by case basis. It falls upon us all to ensure that public engagement is flexible, fair and proportionate. Nevertheless, we are all looking at ways to undertake consultation during the lockdown period and a probable follow on period of limited social interaction.

Digital engagement is nothing new to most of our clients. However, it is wrong to assume that the solution to the current challenge lies solely in reaching out to broader audiences via digital engagement platforms. This is a vital and exciting part of the solution but it must sit alongside traditional methods of engagement such as newsletters via post, freephone numbers, taking the time to have one-to-one interaction over the telephone and following up with hard copies of presentations for those who cannot access information online.

Having said that, there is a huge impetus created by the current circumstance to reach out to this broader and more diverse audience. We know from experience that traditional public exhibitions tend to attract a particular demographic. With digital engagement, there is the opportunity to capture new audiences and a more representative cross-section of the local population, engaging them in development and regeneration in their local community and proactively seeking their counsel on potential community benefits. All of this has the potential to deliver more positive planning outcomes. This form of engagement allows far greater data capture, which in turn means applicants and the local authority can see who has participated and use this data to refine future consultations.

Collaboratively Cascade, Clyde & Co and Montagu Evans are working to ensure best practice consultation that can be actioned now and which will stand up robustly against any future legal tests. We have already explored this thinking with local planning authorities and developers to demonstrate that our approach reaches as wide a cross-section of the community as possible. Ultimately, Councils have the benchmark of their equalities impact assessments to ensure that developers have tried to be as inclusive as possible, including contacting hard to reach groups. The Councils we have spoken to want development to continue and recognise its importance in delivering economic and societal recovery in the medium and longer term.

Central Government needs planning development to continue (and potentially accelerate) to boost the economy post COVID-19 and the opportunity exists for us all to help ensure applications are not stalled unnecessarily. We should make good use of this time and of the technology we are all getting to grips with as part of our new daily lives to keep this show on the road.

The question that challenges all of this, however, is are the public ready to start talking about development in their neighbourhoods, at a time when many are feeling isolated and vulnerable? Right now, it is probably too soon; but the longer this situation continues, so too does the likelihood that everyone will understand and embrace this form of engagement.

This article was written in collaboration with Clyde & Co LLP and Cascade Communications.