“While much planning has become slow-moving, this is largely because a decade of austerity has slashed staffing levels by 30%. Even so, nine out of 10 planning applications are approved. The point of planning is not always to say yes. In the event, Cameron’s reforms have proved so generous that plans for a million homes have been granted and “banked”, languishing unbuilt. To blame planning for this is utterly bogus.”
The most extraordinary upheaval in modern British government is to be introduced this week by Boris Johnson. He is, in effect, to end planning permission. Local councils and those they represent are to be stripped of control over new buildings, to be replaced by central government “zoning” commissions. At the weekend, the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, promised a “change in a generation”. It is more than that. It ends half a century of regulation of England’s landscape and urban development.
The proposed reform will release building rights anywhere outside existing national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Though it promises “protection” to other countryside, there is no conceivable way a new commission can review and “register” every acre for protection. This will unleash the sprawl seen across many countries in the rest of Europe, with owners able to build over their land at will – erecting houses, sheds, advertisements, car parks. It will unleash frantic land speculation in the south-east, and further accelerate the “race to the south”. We can forget Johnson’s “levelling up” pledge.
Details of the reform are to be slipped out under cover of the pandemic and with parliament not sitting. Seventeen environmental organisations have already jointly dubbed it a “race to the bottom”. A planning-profession spokesman on the BBC’s Farming Today on Tuesday morning sounded concussed. Under the now-doomed 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, Britain has been remarkably successful – compared with most countries – in guarding its rural land from haphazard development. This is clearly intended to end.
It is ludicrous to dismiss local participation in planning, as Johnson does, as “nimbyism”. The outskirts of any built-up southern area shows the impotence of that tendency. Under new rules the “zoning” commissioners will merely have to designate land as developable, whereupon owners can legally do what they like. There are various ideas to tax their profits to aid infrastructure and subsidise homes “for locals”, but such schemes have been tried, off and on, for half a century. The Attlee government tried them. They never work as intended. This is a market that takes no prisoners. There is no “free market” in the loveliness of town and country.
Jenrick’s declared ambition in all this is to end an “outdated and cumbersome system” whereby “half as many 16-34 year olds own their own houses as those aged 35-64”. But there have always been more older than younger homeowners. Besides, anyone seriously concerned with housing supply just now should worry about renting and its regulation, not buying. How much influence have lobbyists for the private housebuilding industry – ardent greenfield developers and ancestral foes of planners – had over the new reforms?
As one of the largest collective group of Tory donors, this lobby played a key role in David Cameron’s much less radical planning shake-up in 2012. That ordered local planning committees to adopt a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. It unleashed “executive estates” across southern England, mostly on greenfield sites unrelated to existing towns or villages. Devoid of community infrastructure, they relied on private vehicles for every need and were in no sense “sustainable”.
The now-incentivised development of the south-east is distorted national planning. Latest figures show that England north of the Wash is poorer per head than former East Germany and even the most depressed American states. Meanwhile, building-industry pressure continues to ensure that no VAT is levied on new buildings, but remains at 20% on all building renewal. It is a simple tax on sustainability. Extinction Rebellion should be up in arms.
While much planning has become slow-moving, this is largely because a decade of austerity has slashed staffing levels by 30%. Even so, nine out of 10 planning applications are approved. The point of planning is not always to say yes. In the event, Cameron’s reforms have proved so generous that plans for a million homes have been granted and “banked”, languishing unbuilt. To blame planning for this is utterly bogus.
There is a case for looking afresh at how much of rural England should be guarded from bad development, and how to promote urban renewal. More housing density in towns, such as extra storeys, may make sense in some places. So does easing change of use, especially for hospitality and leisure businesses. The green belt would not need to be sacrosanct were other parts of the countryside offered equal protection, but there is no likelihood of that. None of this requires decontrol.
The issue is who should have power over scarce land. Whitehall already has inordinate scope to intervene in local decisions on appeal. Jenrick recently overruled local planners in Docklands to help a billionaire developer at the flick of his pen, a decision that was later quashed. The antagonism of Johnson and his colleagues towards anything local, seen disastrously under coronavirus, is clearly visceral. But his reform is of a new order. It cancels the democratic right of people to exercise some control over their immediate surroundings, over the character and appearance of their neighbourhood. This is not mere nimbyism – any more than Johnson’s friends are mere profiteers. But it is a civil right that deserves better than to be smothered by commissars.
In a lecture this summer, Johnson’s colleague Michael Gove championed the idea of “allowing communities to take back more control of policies that matter to them”. If he meant what he said, he should prepare to resign.
- Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist.