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20 March 2020

856: Infrastructure planning in lockdown

Today’s entry reflects on the effects of the coronavirus.

There is of course only one topic of news and conversation and only one influencer of activity at the moment. Bored of emails telling you ‘what we’re doing about the coronavirus’? Here are my thoughts, without saying that.

General thoughts

In order to keep us occupied both from a productivity and mental health point of view, and to help to keep the economy going as much as it can, I think our mindset at this time should definitely be ‘how can we do what we were going to do in a different way, given the current restrictions’ rather than ‘we can’t do what we were going to do’. Generally, those in the sort of jobs that read this blog are lucky enough that they can probably carry on working from home; others are not so fortunate. That gives us a greater responsibility to keep going and keep money flowing through the economy. It will take a week or two, but we will find a new equilibrium of behaviour until the virus passes.

As someone who may imminently have to keep away from others including my own family to avoid catching the virus, keeping in touch seems particularly important to me. I’ve found that speaking on the phone is a lot better than email for mood improvement, although WhatsApp and other more immediate applications are good too. I will be making sure I speak to several other people each day. Some communications I have received have been a bit tone deaf but I think we should be forgiving about that.

We are going to have to make sacrifices but the creativity of many people is encouraging – live-streaming gym workouts; singing from balconies and online (check out Gareth Malone); helping those in isolation with shopping and chat (check out Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK); restaurants with food but no customers opening as supermarkets, who have customers but reduced food; supermarkets having a designated hour for vulnerable shoppers; companies switching to produce ventilators and hand sanitisers; hotels offering to act as hospital wards. Any more?

It’s a difficult balance to avoid the news that is sensationalising the outbreak while learning of the ingenious ways people have thought of to help cope that one might adopt.

Planning-specific thoughts

On the practical side, preliminary meetings and hearings relating to Development Consent Orders (DCOs) are suspended. The former will mean a delay to applications; the latter may mean an extension to examinations unless a virtual equivalent can be created. The Planning Act 2008 regime is primarily a written process, as we are often reminded, but some hearings, eg at least one compulsory acquisition hearing if requested, must take place in some form. If you’ve already had one then you may be in the clear. I don’t see why a virtual equivalent is beyond the realms of possibility, but will have to accommodate those without smartphones or internet access. Allowing dialling into a number on a standard phone should be possible. An accompanied site inspection due yesterday on a project I’m working on turned into an unaccompanied site inspection; the Lower Thames Crossing project, towards the end of a statutory consultation, is turning its final consultation events into online Q&A and extending the end date.

Encouragingly, the latest decision on a DCO application, for the North Shropshire electric line, was made on time today. Will report in the next blog on the implications.

More generally, planning matters are being delayed but planning rules are being relaxed to allow coronavirus adaptation-related changes of use. The crisis is forcing the hand of systems that were gradually becoming more online-friendly, which is no bad thing.

So the coronavirus outbreak is already affecting every aspect of our lives and we are not at the peak yet; however with concerted human ingenuity we can minimise the casualties and the financial and mental toll on the rest of us.

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