What might a COVID-19 ‘exit strategy’ look like from a planning perspective and what role will town planners play in taking it forward?

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RTPI President, Sue Manns, shares her personal thoughts and reflections during Week 3 of the UK’s coronavirus ‘Lockdown’

How will we look back on 2020 and what will be its legacy? It started with devastating fires in Australia. Winter floods wrought havoc across the UK. We watched with horror as COVID-19 spread across the globe, rapidly ‘locking down’ communities, restricting movement and social contact.

There is little doubt that the impacts of COVID-19 will profoundly change many aspects of our society, some of which will be challenging whilst others may be seen as positive and long over due.

I, like so many colleagues, am now restricted to home working. However, I am aware that there are members of our profession who have been redeployed to help on ‘front-line’ or who have volunteered to provide support services. I would like to express my personal thanks to each one of you for the work you are doing.

As a profession our immediate focus is to ensure that the planning system everywhere continues to function through this difficult period. In achieving this, planners are showing themselves to be adaptable and resilient. However, as calls for an ‘exit strategy’ grow, it seems to me that this must be about more than simply lifting the current restrictions – as welcome as that will be for everybody. It is an opportunity for us all to reflect on the key issues/lessons learned from this pandemic about the way we live, work and use our homes, our local places and spaces, and make changes.

So, what might an exit strategy look like from a planning perspective and what will be the role of planners in taking it forward? One thing is clear, even 5 years ago most of us did not have the technology in place that has so enabled us to adapt to different ways of working. If anything, the COVID-19 crisis has emphasised the importance of investing in the future and being open to doing things differently.

Many of us are now experiencing life in a very different way. Life is now lived in and around our homes and our local areas – this is all we have. The strengths and the weaknesses of each are becoming increasingly evident. My heart goes out to those who live in cramped conditions, with no access to outdoor space, no access to local shops where essential supplies can be purchased, or who are isolated from family and friends.

Change can happen if we want it to and it can happen fast. Looking at the short term, recent days have seen new legislation reach the statute books in record time. Temporary changes of use, for example to enable bars and restaurants to operate as takeaways have acted as a lifeline for many and may indeed be what is needed to keep these businesses viable going forward.

At the same time, the crisis has also revealed the cruelty and folly of recent permitted development rights which have allowed the conversion outwith planning control of commercial premises to residential uses, with units as small as 13 sq m in size, with no natural ventilation, no windows and no outdoor space. Those now ‘locked down’ in these units must be suffering immensely. We cannot allow this to continue going forward. Homes must be fit to live in and that means having sufficient internal space and opening windows.

And what of our parks and open spaces? Their role in improving health has been well known since Victorian times, yet their use is being increasingly restricted. We may also need to rethink the design of communal open spaces in such a way that allows for greater separation of users in times of crisis.

Anyone who has ventured onto the High Street to shop for essential supplies cannot be other than shocked at what they look like now. No people, no activity, nothing but dead frontages. There is little doubt that the High Street will be severely impacted; already a growing number of retailers, including some household names such as Carluccio’s, Debenhams and Cath Kidston are heading for administration. So, what should the ‘exit strategy’ look to do to support a recovery on the High Street. How can we breathe new life back into our high streets and shopping centres, making them places that people want to visit once again; it may be that this requires a different way of thinking about the role of our town centres. Will the current increase in business seen by corner shops and local shopping parades be maintained and if so, how will this impact on the larger centres?

Data from the Leeds University Transport Studies Unit shows that before the arrival of COVID-19 the number of peak-hour commuter journeys was falling, as a growing number of people were choosing to work one or two days at home; now many more of us are recognising that it is possible to work from home. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the productivity rates of those now working full time from home and who are not struggling to juggle childcare with work, are higher than if they were ‘at the office’. The time and cost benefits of avoiding the daily commute are seen by many as positive – will people want to let this go when ‘lockdown’ is lifted?

Changes to the way we work will have many implications. Will the growth in commercial office space in our town and city centres continue at the predicted rate. Will there be a permanent reduction on the demand for travel and how will this impact on the business case for new infrastructure schemes? Reductions in travel, especially by private car, are already having a marked impact on carbon emissions and air quality – how many will want to see these return to a pre COVID-19 level?

Digital connectivity is the golden thread that is keeping society and families connected. But in places, especially rural areas, speeds are still painfully slow and connections at best ‘flaky’. From remote learning to office video conferencing many of us are using technology to keep in touch with friends and family. Going forward, the importance of digital infrastructure and ensuring that the whole community is connected must feature in the exit strategy. It’s notable that in recent days even the Automobile Association has suggested that we need to prioritise investment in broadband capacity over highway capacity. I am amazed and heartened by the rapid uptake of technology by the older generation that had, until very recently, sought to avoid it. The greater use of technology opens up real opportunities for better community engagement and debate going forward.

There is much to reflect upon and much to debate, but developing sustainable strategies for the future of society, our places and spaces, is something that we as planners are have the skills and experience to deliver. As we move towards an exit strategy, the role of planners will become central in helping to shape our future; it is vital that planners are at the ‘top table’ when this happens.

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