Ministers drop shake-up of planning laws

The biggest shake-up of planning laws for 70 years is set to be abandoned after a backlash from voters and Tory MPs in southern England.

George Grylls, Political Reporter

Reforms designed to help ministers hit a target of 300,000 new homes annually by the middle of the decade will be watered down, The Times understands.

The government had intended to rip up the planning application process and replace it with a zonal system, stripping homeowners of their rights to object to new houses. It said that councils would also be given mandatory housebuilding targets.

Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, will announce a more limited set of changes. Tory MPs blamed the planning overhaul for their party’s shock defeat by the Liberal Democrats at the Chesham & Amersham by-election in June.

The need for wholesale reform has been questioned after developers set records for housebuilding. Almost 244,000 homes were built in 2019-20, the highest number since the late 1980s, and developers appear to have coped well with the pandemic.

In the first three months of this year construction began on 46,010 dwellings, an increase of a third on the same period last year and the highest number of quarterly starts for 14 years. There are more than 1.1 million homes with planning permission waiting to be built, analysis by the Local Government Association has found.

Ministers are expected to abandon their intention to make housebuilding targets mandatory. The zonal system proposed last year is also likely to be dropped — although councils could be asked to designate “growth sites” where there is a presumption in favour of development and planning applications will be fast-tracked.

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser, said in July that the government had already achieved its aims for housing reform by slipping through changes to the planning system this year.

Cummings said that an expansion of Permitted Development Rights (PDRs), which let developers turn high-street businesses into flats and add two storeys to existing buildings without planning permission, had passed unnoticed in Westminster. The changes had been “barely discussed publicly” so that Tory MPs would not get “over-excited”.

A Whitehall source said: “The changes we made this year have been received positively and we’re hearing of examples of them being put to good use and helping our high streets.”

The backbenchers are likely to seek more concessions. Bob Seely, a leading rebel, said: “Communities . . . have a right to demand to be listened to without being shouted down by the Westminster elite as so-called nimbys.”

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We will not comment on speculation. Our response to the consultation will be released in due course.”

New Information Commissioner suggests FOI charges; data protection rights to be weakened

It’s been a busy week.

On Thursday, incoming Information Commissioner, John Edwards, was questioned by MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Unprompted, he suggested he thought it was legitimate to charge some Freedom of Information requesters. 

We issued the following statement in response to his comments:

“John Edwards was cautious about taking a firm position on the FOI questions he was asked, understandably wanting to brief himself fully on the issues before commenting.  Unfortunately, that did not deter him from suggesting off his own bat that some requesters should be charged for making FOI requests, a topic no-one on the committee had even raised with him. He seemed unaware that the ICO has always opposed the introduction of charges. For the incoming Commissioner to advocate a reversal of ICO policy on this critical issue before he’s even taken office is not an encouraging sign. We may have the first Information Commissioner who is willing to take the initiative in proposing to restrict FOI rights.”

Our comments have been quoted in this report on the hearing by openDemocracy. 

Mr Edwards is currently the New Zealand Privacy Commissioner. He takes over from Elizabeth Denham, the current UK Information Commissioner, on 31 October 2021. 

Rights to see personal data at risk

As if that wasn’t worrying enough, today the government published its long awaited proposals for reforming data protection law post-Brexit. It didn’t take us long to figure out that they would seriously reduce the rights of individuals to obtain their own personal data by making a  ‘subject access’ request. 

The consultation document proposes several changes based on provisions under the Freedom of Information Act:

  1. allowing subject access requests to be refused if the cost of answering the request exceeds particular limits;
  2. requiring data controllers to advise and assist requesters whose requests are refused on cost grounds; and
  3. permitting burdensome requests to be refused as vexatious.

Under the Freedom of Information Act requesters can challenge such refusals by complaining to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which must investigate and can overturn refusals. This doesn’t happen under Data Protection legislation. The ICO normally refuses to enforce subject access rights, telling requesters to go to court instead. Few do because of the high costs. 

The consultation would extend the grounds for refusals while strengthening the ICO’s ability to ignore complaints. Any comparison with the FOI regime is misleading: the ICO’s ‘hands off’ approach means individual rights would simply be slashed.

Katherine Gundersen 

Campaign for Freedom of Information

A new planning reform could mean the death of England’s high streets 

“…..handing the high streets over to a blundering herd of developers is not democracy.”

Simon Jenkins 

The summer of 2021 may be remembered for Covid and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But another lasting and insidious change took place: the death of the high street. By approving the building of residential homes on ailing shopping streets, planning minister Robert Jenrick effectively allowed any shop, restaurant, cafe or business premise in England to become a house. Since almost everywhere houses make more money, this puts every high street under threat.

Although done in the name of creating “thriving town centres”, Jenrick’s policy will strip away the cohesion that still binds many communities together, urban as well as rural. The diversity of English towns and cities has long been protected by planners enforcing classes of use. Restaurants and shops could not simply become houses without planning permission. But as of last month, if any landlord thinks to profit by turning the use of one building into another, it will require no permission to do so. A building need only to have been vacant for three months (after Covid-19, this already applies to one in seven shops, and could easily be achieved by eviction). Hit by lockdown, online shopping and the end of rental holidays, high street shops are struggling to survive. They need time to recover, not Jenrick kicking them in the teeth and sending their landlords cheering to the bank.

Listed for Jenrick’s chop are high street shops, restaurants, cafes, pharmacies, clinics, creches and gyms. Protests against the change to planning rules have been universal. The Royal Town Planning Institute dismisses the reform as “a golden gift for unscrupulous landlords and developers”. The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) calls it “no way to revitalise our high streets or level up”. Even the official developer lobby, the British Property Federation, deplores “the damaging impact uncontrolled conversions to residential could have on the future of our high streets”. The National Trust protests at conservation areas not being given protection, “leaving councils powerless to prevent businesses turning into poor-quality housing”. There is nothing to protect York’s Petergate or London’s Beauchamp Place from becoming flats, top to bottom.

Already, research is showing the likely consequences of this madcap policy. A report from University College London for the TCPA studied Huntingdonshire, Leicester, Barnet and Sussex. The expected loss of high street businesses to housing varies from 89% in Barnet to 75% in Huntingdonshire. Overall, four out of five shops are likely to disappear, mostly small, locally owned businesses.

Perhaps Jenrick’s family lives online, their idea of a high street being a van at the door and a delivery driver. Others romanticise community institutions such as the nursery, the newsagent and the village shop. We tease the French for saving every tabac and boulangerie. England’s high streets may be changing in the direction of the internet cafe, the hairdresser and the delicatessen, but all risk falling to a tidal wave of free-market entrepreneurship and Airbnbs. We should remember that such a market is not fluid. A housing estate that replaces a meadow never reverts to a meadow, nor will it revert to a high street.

We need time to assess the communal impact of the pandemic. I know of villages that have found a new sense of neighbourliness in lockdown. But shops, offices and other businesses have suffered a huge, many hope temporary, economic distortion. To exploit such distortion by freeing the use of buildings from planning control risks tearing the heart out of one community after another.

The point of town planning is to regulate the use of a scarce resource – land – for the public good. People want to see the places where they live sensitively regulated, not left to a free-for-all and to be insulted as nimbys if they complain. Boris Johnson should realise what cost him the Chesham byelection.

Planning has to change with the times and the 1987 use-classes orders were certainly archaic and rigid. But just because a law is out of date does not mean it must be abolished. A sense of community is a delicate thing. Its infrastructure will depend on market forces that are in turn disciplined by local debate and consent. Stripping out that consent – the essence of Jenrick’s planning reforms – and handing the high streets over to a blundering herd of developers is not democracy. The concept of English community is to be a snaking procession of delivery vans, one of Johnson’s most miserable legacies.

East Devon: ‘horrendous’ homelessness problems prompt council to hire extra housing officers

Extra staff are being recruited by East Devon District Council (EDDC) to help deal with ‘horrendous problems’ of homelessness caused by the end of the Government’s eviction ban.

Joe ives, Local Democracy Reporter 

The moratorium on evictions, which began during the first wave of the pandemic, ended on 31 May. EDDC says this has fuelled homelessness in the area, with current housing staff unable to keep up with cases and some even having to take time off because of stress.

An EDDC report says an ‘unsustainable’ number of people are approaching the council for help. As of Thursday, August 5, there were more than 250 open homelessness cases, and the number is expected to rise as evictions by private landlords soar.

Councillor Megan Armstrong (Independent Progressive Group, Exmouth Halsdon) told cabinet that the end of the eviction ban was causing ‘horrendous problems’ for many people in East Devon.

Councillor Jack Rowland (Democratic Alliance Group, Seaton) said: “It’s sad that we’re in a position that we have to consider this but the staff have been under such pressure and that pressure isn’t going to go away.

“You can only see the situation becoming worse over the remaining months of this year.”

The council’s cabinet, meeting on Wednesday, September 8, agreed to hire two extra housing officers for the next year at a cost of £67,500.

A worrying increase in insecure accommodation

Homelessness was already rising because of the pandemic, as was domestic violence and rent costs. It is claimed that Airbnb and a growth in the number of holiday homes is adding to the problem.

The legal definition of homelessness is that a household has no home in the UK or anywhere else in the world available and reasonable to occupy. Homelessness does not just refer to people who are sleeping rough. It also includes those in temporary shelter without permanent accommodation, those living in inadequate or unfit housing such as campsites, and those living in insecure housing. The last definition can involve people with insecure tenancies, or facing eviction or domestic violence, or those forced to sofa surf.

Councillor Megan Armstrong picked up the general mood of the cabinet when she concluded: “There are no easy fixes to this, but we will keep trying as best we can.”

Overnight emergency health service outsourced

East Devon District Council‘s night-time service to help elderly and vulnerable people with health emergencies will be partially outsourced to a private company for the next four months because of staff shortages – and could save £4,000.

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter

The service, known as Home Safeguard, provides users with a pendant with a button for them to press in an emergency. An operator then provides over-the-phone help and, if necessary, calls emergency services. 

Home Safeguard operates between 10:15 p.m. and 7:15 a.m., receiving an average of 21 calls a night. But it has lost three team members recently,  and remaining staff have become overstretched.  Now the council is outsourcing four nights a week to a private company called Night Owl, with the in-house team covering the other three nights. The arrangement will run for four months.

Unlike the council’s in-house service, Night Owl staff are not based in East Devon but at offices in Chichester, Exeter and Ashburton. Nevertheless, council officers say the new people have been familiarised with East Devon’s needs.

Some members of the council have taken against the idea, and are particularly worried by comments made in a report that the change could be made permanent if the service offered by Night Owl proves acceptable and more cost-effective. Officers believe around £4,000 will be saved over the next four months.

Speaking before the cabinet’s decision, Councillor Paul Millar, who recently switched from being an independent to join Jake Bonetta as a Labour Party member, said: “So often this kind of policy can come at the expense of quality, working conditions and democratic accountability and, in the end, costs in the long term if our residents suffer from poor communication between the company and the council.”

He said the current salary offered by the council, under £17,500 per year pro-rata, needed to be increased if it is to address its recruitment problems. 

Cllr Millar added: “The core argument about saving money is not one I subscribe to. The savings are negligible.

“I don’t think it should be about money at all. It should be about quality of service.”

Councillor Jake Bonetta (Labour, Honiton St. Michael’s) added: “I cannot support any move to take our council services out-of-house.

“Investing in our own services with better pay and better conditions is so much more valuable than potentially outsourcing permanently.” 

Council leader Paul Arnott (Democratic Alliance Group) said he sympathised with the criticisms and that he disliked the idea of outsourcing, but in his opinion it was a matter of necessity. He argued that without the emergency measures the service could not be maintained. 

He concluded: “I know the answers don’t please everybody or perhaps entirely anybody, but we will revisit this soon. That’s an absolute commitment.”

In a joint statement issued after the decision was agreed, Councillors Bonetta and Millar said they would work to prevent “any future potential cabinet decision to make any unnecessary and expensive outsourcing of the highly valued Home Safeguard social service permanent.

“Labour councils in other parts of the country have proven that bringing services back in-house and maintaining them there leads to cost savings, greater quality, and a more democratically accountable service to voting residents.”

The issue will be discussed again by the cabinet when the contract ends next February.