This article is by way of reflection and introduction, as I enter a new phase of my career as a freelance planning lawyer working alongside like-minded colleagues at nexa law.
I have been very fortunate throughout my career both in the public and private sectors to have worked with some great and inspirational lawyers and this is a perfect time to join an innovative firm such as Nexa to expose myself a brave new world. They have not previously had a planning lawyer in their midst, so this is a great opportunity for me to add a new – did someone say ‘niche’? – service to our clients.
For the last few months, I have treated myself to a sabbatical, during which I have watched the world around me develop rapidly. Planning and legal professionals have universally needed to change the way they work, but the nexa environment is perfectly equipped for lawyers to thrive and do what they do best: delivering legal advice to clients.
This rapid rate of change has, of course, been due to the extraordinary circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Local planning authorities and other public bodies have not been exempted from the phenomenon. We all watched with hilarity the proceedings at Handforth Parish Council as the unfortunate elected members struggled in the new ‘Zoom meeting environment’ and were dispatched with robustness by the new star of the Internet, Jackie Weaver. This experience was familiar to us all. Everybody has needed to engage with remote working and the technology which can assist that process, but the changes for the planning and development industry as well as for local democracy are huge.
I believe that these are massive challenges, but also opportunities for us to engage with our clients. Via my membership as a Legal Associate of the Royal Town Planning Institute and by attending regular online seminars and bulletins, I have kept abreast of the world unfolding and it is very apparent that there are some very profound questions being asked of the planning system by developers and others.
For example, although the housing industry has kept working, following PM Boris Johnson’s exhortation last June to “build, build, build“, there was an inevitable hiatus caused. This means that many developments may be delayed, planning conditions have been unfulfilled and section 106 planning obligations and community infrastructure levy contributions remain operative, but not complied with. Almost all local government officers, including planners and enforcement officers, have also been working from home and not able to get out and about to visit sites and engage with the public.
Planning committees and elected members – like the unfortunate Parish Council mentioned above – have needed to engage with the virtual environment. Let’s hope they’ve been more successful than Jackie Weaver’s colleagues and that as we emerge tentatively from the national lockdown we can all learn from our experiences. We need to move forward efficiently into a post COVID-19 world where it becomes the norm for large elements of our working lives to be conducted remote from clients and colleagues, yet we still aspire to creating new standards of excellence and service.
I for one am fully signed up and raring to go with my new colleagues from Nexa to engage with planning issues of all descriptions and to offer a ‘can do’ approach to my new role.
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