Michael Gove’s planning reforms will ‘erode’ public’s ability to object to developments, legal advice warns

Campaigners accused levelling up secretary Mr Gove of a “power grab” and warned poor quality developments would be built against the will of those forced to live beside them.

Kate Devlin www.independent.co.uk 

Michael Gove is facing calls to tear up his flagship planning reforms after a former adviser to Boris Johnson warned homeowners will not be able to object to nearby developments under the proposals.

Ministers announced the legislation in a flurry of publicity over new “street votes” on loft conversions and conservatories last month.

But a new legal opinion, which has been seen by The Independent and will be published by the Commons levelling-up committee next week, warns that the bill will actually “substantially erode” the rights of local people.

Campaigners accused levelling up secretary Mr Gove of a “power grab” and warned poor quality developments would be built against the will of those forced to live beside them.

The Town and Country Planning Association said that, in the wake of the legal advice, the government should amend the bill.

Paul Brown QC, who advised the prime minister on planning when Mr Johnson was the mayor of London, wrote: “The bill introduces a new mechanism to allow the secretary of state to grant planning permission for controversial developments, bypassing the planning system entirely. There is no right for the public to be consulted as part of this process.”

He adds: “Overall… the bill radically centralises planning decision-making and substantially erodes public participation in the planning system.”

Naomi Luhde-Thompson, director of climate change organisation Rights Community Action, which commissioned the legal advice, said: “This advice is devastating about the impact these proposed laws have on people’s voice in the decisions that matter to their communities. It’s cutting people out of decisions, when we need all hands on deck to deal with crises we face.  Involving people and communities in the development and change of places is a foundation for building places for everyone.”

Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, said the plans go against the government’s levelling-up agenda “which has emphasised the importance of empowering local leaders and communities”. She added: “We hope, therefore, that the government will take the legal opinion on board and seek to amend the bill as it passes through parliament.”

Under the government’s “street votes” plan, people could be given the right to vote on proposed property extensions as well as new homes.

But Crispin Truman, chief executive of countryside charity the CPRE, said that far from strengthening local democracy, the levelling-up bill “is a cleverly disguised power grab by the government”. He added: “As written currently, ministers would have unprecedented power to overrule local plans and, based on the government’s track record, it could mean more poor quality and inappropriate developments being imposed on people against their will.”  

He also warned the bill would leave local councils less able to “deliver affordable homes on small sites, new nature reserves or on renewable energy generation in new housing developments”.  

Rebecca Murray, from Friends of the Earth, said the government’s levelling-up agenda “was meant to give communities the power to regenerate their local areas and ensure that planning decisions are made democratically – yet this bill is set to do the exact opposite”.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said public participation in planning was important as it gave people a voice in protecting nature and responding to climate change. “If ministers are allowed to drown out these voices then significant environmental concerns could go unheard,” he said.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “The levelling-up bill will put power back in the hands of communities and local leaders, simplify the planning system and end outdated, bureaucratic practices that slow down regeneration.

“Under our reforms, local people will be in charge of planning, not big developers or national diktats, and communities will have greater say in local plans, giving them more opportunity to shape what happens in their area and stronger grounds to resist unwanted development.”