The planners’ response to COVID-19

Author Sue Manns

This 2021 reflective commentary by Sue Manns (Royal Town Planning Institute) discusses how planning and the planning profession have adapted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It considers their role in future recovery, covering areas such as working patterns and technology; housing; open spaces; high streets; travel; the environment; and inequalities.

Date added 16 March 2021
Last updated 16 March 2021

This commentary by Sue Manns of the RTPI begins by assessing the changes that were needed in planning to respond to the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, including extending planning permissions expiring in 2020, extending delegated decision-making, producing guidance on safe working practices, greater use of technology, and resource planning.

In terms of changes seen in the planning profession, there were shifts away from a primarily office-based workforce, to one mainly working from home (96%), which resulted in a need for virtual planning committees. In some cases, this has led to more community engagement in such activities, and therefore transparency in planning decisions. There are plans for further use of technology by planners going forwards, such as 3D modelling, virtual reality, and drone footage, to enable better visualisation of new development plans for committee members and local communities. The need for agile technology to respond rapidly to events and disruptions is identified in the profession.

The article also acknowledges the inequalities revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic, whereby not everybody has had the same experiences of ‘lockdown life’ in their local areas. This has, in turn, highlighted the need for quality and more liveable housing, parks, and open spaces, to enhance community wellbeing, ‘level up’, and address issues around climate change.

High streets are put forwards as being particularly negatively impacted by the crisis, given store closures, declining footfall, and rising vacancy rates. The article questions whether the temporary changes seen, such as pavement widening, al fresco dining, and pop-up cycle lanes, will lead to permanent changes on the high street, in addition to whether pre-Covid growth in town centre office space will be viable, given changing work patterns. The author stresses the importance of communities coming together to shape the future of places.

The article also notes changes the pandemic has brought to travel and mobility, whereby less travel by road, rail, and air has led to identifiable benefits in terms of health and in reducing carbon emissions, which was on the radar before the crisis. It questions whether these changes will remain in the longer-term, whilst signalling the need for a greener future.

The author subsequently calls for recovery plans to be put in place, with a place-based approach crucial, to address not only the impacts of the pandemic, but also thinking ahead to the longer-term and pre-crisis challenges, such as climate change and the environment:

The time has now come to think about, and plan for, the recovery. We need spatial plans, policies and actions that together will support a greener, place-based recovery that responds not only to the lessons learned from the pandemic, but also to the challenges that we were grappling with this time last year... Tackling place-based social, economic, environmental and health inequalities must be at the heart of the recovery... We need to ensure that we listen to a greater diversity of views.