Planning Reforms – postponed or cancelled?

The Government’s planning reforms” Planning for the Future”, proposed last year, are now on hold. Despite there not being any official announcement, articles in the national and professional planning press indicate that the Government has slammed on the brakes. The recent sacking of Robert Jenrick and his replacement by Michael Gove further signals a U-turn.

The current government regularly excoriates the planning system for delaying house building and frustrating their target of 300,000 houses built each year. Thus in the foreword to the planning white paper last year – which proposed radical changes to the planning regime – Boris Johnson said that Britain’s planning system is “outdated and ineffective….a relic from the middle of the 20th century” that was artificially constraining the country’s potential, preventing homes being built, businesses expanding and people moving to where they could get the best jobs. The Government proposed a “radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”. The reforms were said to be central to the Government’s commitment to “build back better” after the pandemic, and its mission to level up the regions.

The planning system, in place since 1947, was to be abandoned and replaced by a zonal system of allocating land for growth, renewal or protection, a new process of applying for planning permission, and very severely constrained opportunities for residents to object to new houses. The Government was to give each Council a mandatory housing target for inclusion in their local plans.

Every government since the 1970’s has promised to ease planning restrictions and every government has bowed before the democratic imperative of voters not liking it. In the current case there has been a threefold retreat. First, in December last year, Tory MP’s rebelled against a “mutant algorithm” that led to a disproportionate increase in construction in the Party’s south-east heartlands. Robert Jenrick announced an update which would push housebuilding into the biggest twenty cities (including Coventry). Second, the voters of Chesham and Amersham, in delivering a victory for the Liberal-Democrats, spoke for residents across the south of England in their opposition to allowing developers to choose where to build (often the green belt), rather than through more democratic plan-making, and to Jenrick’s Stalinist national plan for statutory housebuilding targets for every English council. And thirdly, Robert Jenrick has been sacked for causing all this consternation in the Tory party.

It is not as if the Government hasn’t been advised. Their own Oliver Letwin in his independent report of 2018 on how to close the significant gap between housing completions and the amount of land allocated or permitted for housing found that rather than the planning system holding back development the biggest obstacle to new building are the volume house builders holding back projects because they don’t want an increase in the housing stock to lead to a reduction in prices.

The Coventry Society made a detailed response to the Government’s consultation on the White Paper last October. Reproduced below are the first five paragraphs of our response. Our views were similar to those of many Civic Societies, professional planning bodies and local authorities.

“The White Paper appears to us to be a solution looking for a problem. We do not have the same concerns about the current planning system as the Government’s advisers do. The wholesale restructuring of planning appears to be justified on the basis of achieving the Government‘s housing targets.  To us this seems to be a metropolitan / SE of England problem based on previous housing trends.

“The title of this white paper “Planning for the Future” is a complete misnomer. The exercise has a far more narrow focus on making more land available for housing, based not on planning for the future, but simply following past market trends. There is no vision for an alternative more sustainable future which addresses the urgent need to respond to national climate change targets.

“A recent report by the CPRE, on the basis of Government data, has demonstrated that there is brownfield land available now for the construction of 1.3 million homes, in locations that are more sustainable than building on greenfield sites as planned in the White Paper. We are concerned that the proposals in the White Paper will remove the incentive for the re-development of this brownfield land.

“If the problem is housing supply, then the solutions needed are to find mechanisms to unlock the land held by housebuilders in land banks (estimated to be sufficient for more than a million houses) and to stimulate the construction of Local Authority and Housing Association properties. The only time that the Government’s housing target has ever been met was when there was a significant local authority house building programme.

“These proposals were formulated in the pre Covid era and there is now a unique degree of uncertainty in the property and development world, the implications of which won’t become clear until we emerge at the other side of this crisis. To reshape our planning system based on a potentially outdated scenario is foolhardy. Surely there is a need to wait until the economic effects of the pandemic are more obvious, the relative strength and direction of property and investment markets clearer, and the resources of local authorities to cope with sweeping changes are defined?”

So where are we now?

Firstly, during the pandemic the Government has quietly gone about reforming planning by changing permitted development rights and the Use Classes Orders.  Individually they may not add up to much, but collectively they will change the look and feel of places – shops can be changed into houses; two stories can be added to detached blocks of flats; cafes and pubs extended onto streets, for example. The quality of the urban environment is under threat as established protections are removed.

Second, and of greater importance, we have a new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, in a newly retitled Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. From press reports, he appears to have put the white paper planning reforms on hold. However, without a ministerial statement to that effect uncertainty is created for all – local authorities, local communities and developers. The House Builders Federation still believe that they have the Governments ear and remain convinced that some of the proposals will still be delivered. In Coventry the City Council is committed to triggering a Local Plan review “no later than November 2022”. But what will be the regulatory context for it, and what (if any) housebuilding targets will be mandated for it?

Michael Gove has a proven record as a reformer – at Education , Environment, Justice and the Cabinet Office. Will planning reform be his priority? His first statement suggested otherwise: referencing the Levelling Up agenda to tackle regional inequalities he said that this is “the defining mission of the Government”. Is planning part of this?  We wait anxiously for some clarity via a Government announcement rather than leaks to the press!

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