A by-election result spells potential trouble for the UK government’s plans for planning reform, says Jane Embury
It was interesting that the Liberal Democrats won the recent Chesham and Amersham by-election. They took the seat from the Conservatives.
They won the Buckinghamshire constituency which has been a Tory stronghold since its creation in 1974. Their victory overturned a Conservative majority of more than 16,000 votes.
The main reason put forward by pundits is that voters are waking up to what the government’s planning reforms will mean for their communities.
The government wants to streamline the planning process to boost the supply of new homes.
The counter-argument is that local democracy will be undermined. Local elected planning committees could be largely ignored.
Among government plans are proposals to zone land for “growth” which would give it automatic outline planning permission. Local councils will be unable to turn down applications.
A new planning bill was promised in the Queen’s Speech and will likely come before parliament in the autumn.
While it’s a political argument which we don’t want to join, we have long been champions for architecture that’s fit for local communities.
It’s an issue that’s being pushed up the political agenda as the government rushes to protect and create jobs throughout the construction sector.
But its strategy of build, build, build may be compromised by insufficient oversights to ensure that the new architecture will be of the highest quality. Importantly also, that it will be built in the right places.
One lesson from Covid-19 is that we now value of our local communities in a new way. We see its beauties and its interconnectedness. Perhaps the voters of Chesham and Amersham saw the same thing.
As a part of the construction industry, we understand how important the sector is to economic recovery.
But we’ve also long said that economic recovery begins in our towns and cities. While new housing is important, towns and cities need the vision and powers to rethink their purpose, and to redevelop accordingly.
For example, rather than build new houses in the countryside, why not repurpose redundant offices? More of us will go on working from home, at least for part of the week, and we need to give life to empty buildings.
Former environment secretary Theresa Villiers, Tory MP for Chipping Barnet, has also called the government’s strategy into question.
She believes that “there needs to be a stronger focus on brownfield sites in urban inner-city areas.”
We agree with that analysis because many of our towns and cities were built to accommodate industries that have either declined of which have gone.
That’s why we’ve said that, at this crucial juncture as Covid-19 is finally beaten, we need to take a step back. We should instead develop long-term strategies to repurpose our urban areas.
The government has said that it wants to “level the foundations” and to create an entirely new planning system. But that proposed planning system is largely about building new houses on what is amenity land.
What we need is a joined-up strategy that recognises the importance of our towns and cities, and how population size impacts on local economies.
A future planning strategy should be about enhancing brownfield sites, for whatever purpose, and giving urban areas new life.
These projects all recognised how urban regeneration can be an engine to bring in new homes and economic benefits.
In contrast, the UK government seems to believe that building anything anywhere is the answer. It isn’t.
But the keyword is ‘sensible’ because we may soon regret a rush to build that results in inappropriate developments in the wrong places.