Planning to sustain future construction in Norfolk and Suffolk

PUBLISHED: 11:24 06 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:40 06 May 2020

Phil Branton says it’s in everyone’s interest to maintain momentum in the planning system   Picture: Nick Ilott

Phil Branton says it’s in everyone’s interest to maintain momentum in the planning system Picture: Nick Ilott

Nick Ilott Photography

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating many issues and challenges for the construction industry in Norfolk and Suffolk. Sue Wilcock looks at planning and specification.

Sue Wilcock  Picture: Warren PageSue Wilcock Picture: Warren Page

Planning is fundamental to the buoyancy of the economy in general, but it is paramount in sustaining the construction activity needed to deliver future housing, employment and infrastructure.

Award-winning architectural practice Wincer Kievenaar is at the sharp end of the planning process and is finding that, despite the lockdown, local authorities have acted swiftly to make sure they are in a position to continue a service to the public, agents and developers alike.  

This prompt action has been supported by central government putting key legislation in place to allow flexibility and give further powers to local authorities to take proactive planning decisions.

“It is in everyone’s interest to maintain momentum in the planning system to allow projects to achieve consent,” said Phil Branton, director at Wincer Kievenaar. “Whether it is providing office accommodation, affordable homes or a dream extension, all these projects feed the local construction industry and broader economy. 

“We are finding that now many of the local authorities are working remotely, they are achieving planning registration as quickly, if not quicker than before the pandemic hit. Officers remain available via telephone and videoconferencing and are often more easily contactable as a result of them working at home.

“In the case of significant or controversial planning applications, local authorities have reviewed their process ensuring, where appropriate, applications can continue to be heard at a publicly-screened planning committee.”

Having committees broadcast online is not new. However, getting the committee members attending virtually is something all authorities are having to juggle with when taking into account poor internet connection, or individuals not possessing the know-how to set up the technology at home.

“As a result, although we have had confirmation that some live planning applications will be heard by virtual committee, in many cases local authorities are working with agents to ensure applications are acceptable and can be determined without this process,” Mr Branton added.

James Potter is MD of structural engineering design business Superstructures, and is pleased that planners are stepping up to the plate.

“Gaining planning consent is probably the most important hurdle for any construction project. It opens the gateway for the supply chain to start the range of work needed to get things built; from product specification, structural and building services design to construction management plans and costing.”

A note of caution though is that, fundamentally, one aspect of the planning process that is not flexible is the need for the design team to carry out site surveys.

Mr Branton commented: “On open, unpopulated sites it is possible to do this and adhere to the rules around social distancing; however, where a site is densely occupied or in a built-up area, this is challenging and, in many cases, unsafe. The result is that the project can stall before the planning process starts, curtailing construction work progressing, just when we need to get the industry back up and running.”

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Specifying to overcome material challenges

With construction sites reopening, another problem now facing the industry is the shortage of materials and delivery delays.

As Bob Steward, joint MD of Barnes Construction explained: “It’s good to hear that it is business as usual regarding planning, but typical projects, even when planning permission is granted, then have a number of conditions put in place laying down the type of structure to be built and the materials to be used.

“These are all valid; however, if the product being specified is bespoke and/or needs to be imported, then in normal circumstances this can be a lengthy process. And, as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the timeline is extending further and being compounded by a rise in the price of materials as demand increases.

“Now more than ever, the whole project team should be giving consideration to the source and choice constraints around material specification.

“For instance, unless it is pivotal to the setting of the building, rather than stipulating a handmade brick from say, Italy, there should be alternative options, which allow for comparative quotes and orders to be placed for materials that are more readily available.

“We need to be promoting that construction is open for business; therefore, all parties involved in the construction process need to adopt a collaborative and pragmatic approach to working within the new rules and processes, to ensure we keep the sector moving.”

Progressing work experience

Following on from his work with Suffolk ONE as an enterprise adviser, James Potter at Superstructures has been asked to carry out virtual work experience and talks with students from all over the eastern region.Starting in May, he will be working through initiatives led by the New Anglia LEP and Form the Future, which is supported through the Cambridge Forum for the Construction Industry, to engage with young people; primarily in a bid to attract them to take up a career in structural engineering, but also introducing them to the wide range of possibilities and options within the construction sector.

Recognising exceptional design in Suffolk

Usually, as part of the Suffolk Joint Construction Committee’s (SJCC) annual supper in May, RIBA Suffolk present awards to the county’s architects to celebrate design excellence. 21 projects were entered this year and, for the first time, the judges have split the awards into six categories to recognise and give a better flavour for the sectors Suffolk architects work in.

Twelve projects have been shortlisted under the categories of self-build, commercial, sport and leisure, healthcare, residential and education. As the SJCC supper in May will not take place, arrangements are being made for a public exhibition in the autumn, when the category winners plus an overall winning design award will be revealed.

This story is in association with Barnes Construction, Wincer Kievenaar, Superstructures and Suffolk Joint Construction Committee.

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