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James Parker looks at the likely implications of the Government’s highly controversial planning bill

It’s somewhat bitterly amusing that with everything that is going on in the world, one of the few issues that can unite those from the left and right of the political spectrum is the eternal row around where new houses should be built.

A group of Labour MPs have joined forces with their Tory foes to bring a vote forward to water down the Government's forthcoming, and highly controversial planning Bill.

Labour is hoping Conservative backbenchers will get on board following the Tories’ shock defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

The Lib Dems managed to overturn a long-standing blue majority – 16,000+ in the last Election, into an 8,000 Lib Dem majority.

Ed Davey’s candidate (and party-defying HS2 opponent) Sarah Green benefitted from what was a firm protest vote against the impact of HS2 locally, but also the Government’s moves to relax planning to get more houses built – in a concerted effort to push towards the elusive 300,000 homes target.

The government should probably start with reforming the “antiquated and protracted planning process”

James Parker James Parker Editor of Architects DataFile

Not in my back yard

The results of this combination of powerful local ‘NIMBY’ factors, as shown in Chesham and Amersham, can be fairly cataclysmic.

There’s nothing people care about more than what is happening in their ‘back yard,’ and a combination of HS2’s sledgehammer approach to even leafy suburbs, and the spectre of a lot of homes springing up next door has made the locals stand up to object.

The problem is, how many more constituencies like this are there, ready to turn their backs on the Government once the planning reforms really get going?

Commentators have also however proposed the notion that the Tories’ focus on continuing to prevent the northern ‘red wall’ (which turned blue in the last Election) from being rebuilt means that their voters in affluent southern constituencies are feeling neglected.

This is the Conservatives’ heartland of old; it doesn’t really form part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda they are so desperate to continue marketing.

Delivering big numbers

The key change in the Bill is to bring in zoning to accelerate building in areas deemed most suitable as per the 2020 Planning for the Future White Paper, and help developers ultimately deliver the big numbers of affordable homes for young people that are sorely needed.

The greater freedom for homebuilders, however, is seen by objectors such as those in Chesham and Amersham as likely to lead to the industry building higher-yield homes which aren’t affordable for first-time buyers, and which will end up empty, leaving a legacy of aspirationally-specified ‘ghost towns’ on what were green fields.

Critics locally and nationally also view the Government as keen to hand planning policy over to developers, in the mantra-like conviction that the market will provide the right answers.

Would more of a partnership approach between the industry and Homes England be more appropriate, given the complexity of the situation?

A right to object

Labour is sensing further bloodshed and is planning a Private Member's Bill to guarantee "communities' right to object to planning applications that threaten their local area."

The Planning and Local Representation Bill will give anyone making representations on a planning application the right to be consulted on all forms of development for at least 21 days.

They also claim the Conservatives received £11m in donations from developers in the first year of Boris Johnson's premiership, but also £891,000 in the first three months of 2021.

Hoping to steal the Lib Dems’ thunder, they are taking on developers as well as the Government, including planning to end land-banking, and this whole area could be a major battleground for future elections, and the General Election in 2024.

A developers’ charter

Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Steve Reed tried to accentuate the need for collaboration however: “Good development can only happen when developers and communities work together.”

Part of how the Government’s new Bill will speed things up is by removing the ability for people to object to individual planning applications, only allowing them to object when a Local Plan is published.

Reed called this a “developers' charter” that would prevent local residents from having their say and allow them to “build at will.”

The NFB has said such comments show a failure to understand how the system works, but Ritchie Clapson at propertyCEO went further, saying that he didn’t see the need to democratise planning: “Whilst I am all for gaining local opinion, it does seem odd that many times a potentially viable development scheme is blocked by the comments of the general public or indeed committees that often don’t have any true knowledge of town planning or what is or isn’t appropriate development.”

His, perhaps unrealistic, idea is that “we stop worrying about politics and public opinion, the system in this country has been broken for many years and at least now we are trying to fix it, let’s not get that push derailed.”

On one hand, the Government is being hammered for loosening up planning, but on the other, when it tries to tighten planning up to make builders build, it gets it in the neck from the industry. You have to feel for them a bit.

18-month deadline

The final nail in the proposals is that builders will be stripped of planning permission if construction doesn’t progress to the local authority’s satisfaction within 18 months of planning being approved.

Nearly a million plots with planning across the country have yet to be completed, but the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s idea is being hailed as the means to kick the build rate up several notches.

Some in the industry say the plan unfairly penalises developers, and lands them with extra bureaucracy, while avoiding the real factors behind the 74,000 new build shortfall between 2019-20 (on the 300,000 home target). Simon Das of property financier 978 Finance, for one put it succinctly, saying these proposals are “a kick in the teeth for our housebuilding clients.”

He echoes the views of so many in recent years, saying that instead of punishing developers, the “antiquated and protracted planning process” needs reform.

This is probably where the Government should start, however fast action is needed to at least grapple with the likely repercussions of freeing up a system in developers’ favour, which could end up freeing up millions of votes to the ‘other side.’

James Parker is editor of Architects DataFile