Jane Embury asks whether a rush to build will lead to a better built environment
The UK government has announced major reform to the planning system.
Critics of the current system say that it’s unwieldy, cumbersome and takes too long time for decisions to be made.
In response, the government wants significant deregulation, something that the housebuilding industry has welcomed.
The planning changes were announced in the recent Queen’s Speech. A draft planning Bill will shortly be published.
The bill, likely to come before parliament this autumn, follows the publication last summer of a planning white paper.
The government has said that it wants to “level the foundations” and to create an entirely new planning system.
Among the plans are proposals to zone land for “growth.” This means it will gain automatic outline planning permission. Local councils will be unable to turn down applications.
The plans have inevitably been questioned by environmental groups, planners and some in the development industry.
The government, of course, recognises the importance of the building industry, which contributes some £117 billion to the UK economy. It also employs some 2.4 million people, over 6% of all jobs.
But there is another factor at play in the government’s plans. The expedient need to turn more people into home-owners.
This levelling-up agenda is primarily aimed at the north of England, where traditionally Labour-supporting areas have turned blue.
The government wants to ensure that a short-term political change of allegiance becomes a long-term voting pattern.
We agree absolutely on the need for a simpler and faster planning system. But we also want to see a system that excludes national political expediency.
The future of planning is something we’re raised recently. We also recognise that our towns and cities will need to be repurposed to meet a changed new world.
But local planning should be in the hands of local planners who are best able to determine local needs.
If they fail in that duty, then we would agree that a fast appeals process should be in place.
The government has said that over 40,000 people responded to its white paper consultation.
We also fully understand that, as we emerge from Covid-19, the building industry will be front and centre of our recovery.
But we hope that spatial zoning and design codes ensure that the all new developments are locally-appropriate and well-designed.
It’s a worry shared by the likes of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. They’ve said that communities could “be robbed of their right to shape the places in which they live.”
The government acknowledges that building into the countryside isn’t a great idea. Cities have been encouraged to incorporate additional housing, rather than build into rural areas.
We’ve long said that towns and cities need the vision and powers to rethink their purpose, and to redevelop accordingly.
At its simplest, rather than build new houses, why not repurpose redundant offices? With more of us now set to work from home, whatever the future holds, we need to give life to empty buildings.
The City of London has already announced plans to turn offices into thousands of new homes. It’s something that other authorities should be considering.
The building industry is a vital part of the national economy. If the building sector thrives, the country thrives.
But much better if the building industry could be put to best use by building, or rebuilding, a future we can be proud of.