Boris Johnson faced fresh claims that the Tory party is doing favours for its “housing developer mates” after he unveiled sweeping planning reforms to allow high street shops to be turned into housing.
Both Labour and the Council for the Protection of Rural England hit out after the prime minister used a speech in the West Midlands to set out “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war.”
Under new rules, existing commercial premises including empty shops can be converted into residential housing without the need for permission, and local councils’ role in the planning system will be cut back.
As well as allowing more shops to be turned into homes in city centres, the changes will allow retail premises to be turned permanently into cafes or offices without a planning application or local authority approval.
Pubs, libraries, village shops and other categories essential to the lifeblood of communities will not be covered by the new “flexibilities” to Planning Use Orders.
Builders will no longer need a normal planning application to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes.
Property owners will also be able to build additional space above their properties via a fast track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation.
The government argues that the changes, which are planned to come into effect by September, will both support the high street by allowing empty commercial properties to be quickly repurposed and also reduce the pressure to build on green field land.
In his speech, Johnson said “we are more slow” in housebuilding than in Germany or the Netherlands.
He said: “Covid has taught us the cost of delay. Why are we so slow at building homes by comparison with other European countries? In 2018 we built 2.25 homes per 1000 people. Germany managed 3.6, the Netherlands 3.8, France 6.8.
“I tell you why – because time is money, and the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country and so we will build better and build greener but we will also build faster.”
The “newt-counting” remark appeared to be a reference to some housebuilding plans being delayed by wildlife habitat reviews.
Asked if he was prepared to take on ‘Nimby’ opponents of his planning changes, the PM replied: “Yes I can imagine there will be some people who want to object to this or that, but there always are. This country took 35 years to get Crossrail done. We need pace.”
But Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire said that the “land grab” away from councils and affordable homes towards developers could harm rather than help the struggling high street.
Affordable homes are typically added to developments so they comply with local planning regulations, but where councils no longer have a say over whether developments go ahead there is little incentive for this to continue.
A joint report by charity Shelter and estate agent Savills today warned that just 4,300 social homes were set to be built annually as the country recovered from coronavirus – not even enough to clear the waiting list in Wakefield, never mind nationwide.
And the reforms were all the more stark in the light of the Westferry “cash for favours” planning scandal involving housing secretary Robert Jenrick and tycoon Richard Desmond.
“The arrogance of Robert ‘three-homes’ Jenrick proposing a roll-out of ill-adapted rabbit hutches is staggering – permitted development has been shown to be a failure and this is just another example of the Tories doing favours for their property developer mates,” the shadow housing secretary said.
“Meanwhile, our climate change targets are urgent, and there are millions of existing homes which need insulation and energy efficiency.”
Johnson revealed that a new “policy paper” would be produced next month setting out comprehensive reform of England’s seven-decade old planning system, “to introduce a new approach that works better for our modern economy and society”.
Tom Fyans, policy and campaigns director at CPRE, the countryside charity, said deregulating planning and cutting up red tape would not deliver better quality housing.
“Our research has shown that three quarters of large housing developments are mediocre or poor in terms of their design and should not have been granted planning permission. Transferring decision making power from local councils and communities and handing them to developers is the exact opposite of building back better,” he said.
“The best way to deliver the places that we need, at the pace we need them, is to make it easier for local councils to get local plans in place, and then to hold developers to those plans. We need to make sure the voices of local communities are strengthened in shaping the homes and places that they will inherit.”