Robert Jenrick’s cunning planning revolution might just give our moribund towns a new lease of life

This is a tongue in cheek, “Over the top”, outrageous comment on planning  – a complete contrast to Owl’s normally sober reflections. (But there may be grains of truth in Jeremy Clarkson’s entertaining buffoonery).

Jeremy Clarkson www.thetimes.co.uk 

It has recently been announced that the rules governing planning permission are to be simplified. Soon, without any kind of thumbs-up from the local council, Katie Price will be able build a pink Rapunzel-style tower on the side of her mansion. And Ed Sheeran will be able to add a swim-up bar to the diving board and inflatable swans that he’s installed in and around his “garden pond”.

Planning consent has always been annoying, because even if you want to build a train set in your attic, you can be assured there will be objections. It’s just a fact that on every street and in every village, there is always at least one person who spends their mornings commenting online about stories in the Daily Mail and their afternoons objecting to planning applications.

And even if you can get over that hurdle, you’re still nowhere near home free, because before you’re given permission, people in hi-vis jackets will have to visit the site to make sure that no bats will be affected. They will spend the night in your garden, and then they will announce that they have definitely seen a pipistrelle, and that it will have to be rehoused before work can begin.

So how do you rehouse a bat? Well, in theory, the only way is to offer it superior accommodation, which means you must encourage it to move into your rich neighbour’s much larger house. Unfortunately, this is impossible because bats have no powers of reason, so what you must do is shoot it* and then tell the council man that, much to your surprise, it just upped sticks one day and left.

However, as it is extremely difficult to shoot a bat, many people decide instead to join the freemasons. If you do this, there will be no awkward questions about bats, or newts, and any pesky objections from your Daily Mail-reading neighbours will be put in the bin.

Some people think that, to win over a planner, you must take him to your box at Wembley or educate his children, but you really don’t. You simply shake his hand, being careful to press down hard with your thumb on his index-finger knuckle, and immediately he will assume you’re the Duke of Kent and allow you to build the purple guitar-shaped orangery you’ve always dreamt about. Oh, and 16 executive homes in your paddock.

But all that’s due to change, thanks to the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, who’s obviously been to a fundraising ball of some sort and decided, while sitting next to a property developer, that Britain would get back on its feet quicker if the planners were a bit more supine.

Naturally, people are now running around, waving their arms in the air and screaming blue murder, claiming McDonald’s will soon be opening a drive-through in Bibury and KFC will be allowed to build a takeaway joint in two new storeys on the top of York Minster.

However, the thing that seems to have caused the most froth and spittle is the proposal to let people convert town-centre shops into residential accommodation. “People can’t be expected to live in houses where all the windows face the same way” scream the nation’s architects. But I’m not sure about that. Iron Man lived in a house built into a cliff, and that was amazing. And what about Petra? All the windows face the same way there.

Architects have converted churches into houses and won awards for it. They’ve also converted barns, pig sties, sewage plants, factories, stables and even caves. I know one architect who lives in a yurt, and that has no windows at all. So why the sudden beef about converting a branch of WH Smiths?

Town centres have been dying for some time, and the coronavirus has accelerated that process. When I moved to Chipping Norton, 25 years ago, there were little shops selling hardware, hi-fi kit, car accessories and shoes. There was even a charming department store, and now all of them have gone.

Every day, the planners are giving permission for more and more houses to be built in the surrounding area, seemingly without noticing they’re creating a doughnut. A ring of smart new Barratt boxes all gathered round a big empty hole in the middle.

I don’t doubt for a minute that your town is exactly the same, so it makes sense to turn some of those empty shops into houses. That would bring in people, and when you have people, restaurants and bars will follow, along with all the little boutiques and market stalls that sell stuff you can’t buy at an out-of-town superstore or online.

You therefore end up with a fun place full of families rather than a dusty and vandalised hellhole full of pizza boxes, vomit and charity shops selling nothing but books by Richard Hammond about how he didn’t die in a car accident.

And it’s not just town planning that needs a shake-up. According to the Daily Mail, I’m in a spot of bother with my local planners at the moment because they don’t like the juniper-green steel roof on my new farm shop.

Now, at this point you’re probably expecting me to describe in some detail the size of the traffic cone I’m going to insert into the planning officer responsible for this objection, but I’m not, because I’ve dealt with the planners round these parts for many years and they’re all very sensible. The rules they have to implement, however? That’s a different story.

If I filled my new barn with farming equipment, it’d be an agricultural building, and there’s nothing really the council could do about it. If, however, I fill it with local produce and employ local women to sell it to local customers, the council can do something, and it has.

It’s obviously nuts. But, that said, we can’t have a planning free-for-all. We do need some rules, because, unfortunately, in this country not everyone has very good taste.

*You could eat it, of course, but I really wouldn’t recommend that.

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