Comment by Peter Martin, Vice President, CGA

The Government is preparing a major overhaul of the planning system in England to speed up approvals for new developments. It’s all part of its strategy for kick-starting the economy, or so we read in the press.

We are now used to ministers testing out the popularity of ideas in the media before either pushing ahead or simply denying they were ever being considered in the first place.

But this time we do have communities secretary Robert Jenrick on the record saying it’s time to speed up and simplify an overly bureaucratic planning process: “This government is thinking boldly and creatively about the planning system to make it fit for the future.”

There is little detail yet and no firm timetable, although proposals are said to include the introduction of a zonal planning system and the creation of special development zones, in which private developers will play an expanded role.

Press reports suggest that the outline of the reforms should be ready for a wider economic announcement expected from chancellor Rishi Sunak next month, which is also likely to include extra infrastructure spending.

This is important not just directly for the hospitality sector, which has often found itself tied up in planning regulations, but more so for the wider stimulus it can provide to the economy, which we all know is on its knees.

The sector, as well as individual companies, must be involved in the debate. While pub, restaurant, hotel and leisure operators are rightly focused on getting the sector up and running again, the long-term prospects for those that do manage to get through these next few months will increasingly depend on external factors and the health of UK plc as a whole.

Lobbying on rents, extending the furlough, insurance and ‘social’ distancing are all vitally important, but it would be a mistake to ignore other issues like planning reform (or say the Agriculture Bill currently going through Parliament) which could in time usher in big structural changes, and potentially even problems for the sector. We are all aware of the law of unintended consequences.

The trading, not to say physical, landscape that hospitality will emerge into will be very different than the one it left back in March. Navigating a way through will not be easy, and operators will need to be flexible enough to take advantage of the opportunities that do arise.

Major question marks hang over the future shape of the country’s town and city centres, retail parks, office spaces and travel hubs, certainly in the short-term and quite likely long-term too.

Hospitality often portrays itself as the business sector worst hit by the COVID crisis, but with the theatre industry not expected to reopen until next year and the country’s biggest exhibition halls still requisitioned as Nightingale hospitals, others are feeling the pain too – and that will have a knock-on effect for pubs, restaurants and hotels that rely on those sectors for a good part of their trade. And what about the future for tourism and business travel? We are all bound together in needing a sustainable route out of recession.

Footfall is slowly growing in London’s residential neighbourhoods, as Wireless Social insight showed at CGA’s recent Resetting the course to recovery webinar, but Canary Wharf, the West End and City remain eerily quiet. With working from home set to continue for many, how long will that persist? Where, when and how should pubs, restaurants and hotels reopen, if at all?

Proposals to pedestrianize London’s Soho would be a welcome boost for hospitality, and the Government seems keen to allow restaurants to spill out into other public spaces, although some local councils appear less keen.

Using planning reform to encourage investment is a good thing, and new housing is seen as a priority. But understanding and tracking how that is going to play out, and more importantly where, is going to be important for service industries like hospitality – as is how they are going to be allowed to become involved. That, in turn, will determine where those businesses will choose to invest.

The health of the broader economy and the shape and pace of that recovery may well prove the most important factor in the survival of hospitality businesses once the rebooting phase is done. That’s why keeping an eye out for the seemingly less important issues now may well pay dividends long-term.


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