The development industry has not escaped the challenges and uncertainty of the pandemic over the past year, and, much like the changing restrictions we have all faced, changes to the planning regime have been similarly piecemeal and inconsistent across the devolved nations.
While headline-grabbing legislative changes have been introduced in England, the response of the Welsh government appears to have been more measured and targeted at the immediate effects of the pandemic. Its general approach has been to encourage local planning authorities to exercise discretion and permit flexibility where needed.
Following the initial spell of panic-buying and uncertainty as to whether construction sites could remain open, all local planning authorities were contacted to endorse a “supportive approach” towards businesses when considering the enforcement of conditions relating to food delivery times and store opening hours.
The discretion to relax enforcement of working hours on construction sites (where requested to do so) was also highlighted. This could allow work to continue until 9pm from Mondays to Saturdays in residential areas and even through 24 hours in non-residential areas where this can be justified and appropriate mitigation measures are in place.
However, notably, the Welsh government chose not to introduce an automatic extension to planning permissions due to lapse during the pandemic – statutory mechanisms to this effect are in place in England and Scotland.
In terms of the demand on medical and related facilities, two new permitted development rights have been created.
The first will enable NHS bodies to change the use of any building to a Class C2 (residential institution) or Class D1(non-residential institution) for the purposes of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a response to a public health emergency in the UK.
The second will allow local authorities to undertake development of land owned, leased, occupied or maintained by the authority for the purposes of preventing an emergency, reducing, controlling or mitigating the effects of an emergency, or taking other action in connection with an emergency.
Both of these will be authorised without the need for a planning application providing conditions are adhered to, including to limit the period of development to 12 months. This can be contrasted with the introduction of numerous changes to the use class regime and permitted developments rights in England, aimed at stimulating housing delivery and flexible uses on the high street.
As the vaccine rolls out and thoughts turn to economic recovery, the Welsh government has already optimistically expressed (in ‘Building Better Places’ published last summer) that the Covid-19 recovery is an opportunity to re-set the clock, with a focus on place-making and building a cleaner, greener society.
The National Development Framework in due course will set the direction for development in Wales to 2040, but progress on the NDF itself has also stalled due to the pandemic with a revised date for scrutiny of the draft by the Senedd yet to be confirmed.