Boris Johnson is wrong to blame the housing crisis on overregulation

Finn Williams and David Chipperfield
Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

Much of this week has been spent discussing Rishi Sunak’s summer statement and attempts to revive the economy amid the pandemic. But in a month of big government plans, the pronouncement that may well leave a more permanent mark on the post-Covid-19-landscape was Boris Johnson’s promise to “build build build”.

The prime minister’s supposed “new deal” to build our way out of a dire economic situation has been widely dismissed as an empty statement that depends mostly on the repackaging of existing funding with few tangible changes. But for those of us concerned with the built environment – whether in the public or private sector – the speech has huge implications precisely because of what the government is opting not to do. The ideological ambitions to deregulate, reduce control and to willingly weaken environmental standards are frightening and deepen the misunderstanding of the real issues of planning and infrastructure in our country.

We have a housing crisis. This crisis is not because we have an over-regulated planning system but because we have a disenfranchised and dismantled one (funding for running this system has been cut by 42% over 10 years). The rhetoric of “Project Speed”, of “scything through red tape” and poking fun at “newt counting” takes us back to an unfounded and outmoded attitude that planning is the problem. After decades of experience building in cities around the world, it is evident that the opposite is true: planning is the central part of the solution and we need more of it. We’ve also seen evidence through Public Practice that if you celebrate planning, and give authorities the remit and resources to be creative and ambitious, you will have a genuine route to rebuilding the UK’s infrastructure.

Infrastructure does not simply mean technical engineering projects – it also encompasses the basic human right to good housing, which, when planned with skill and to encourage a sense of community, forms the foundations of a civil society.

Focusing on quantity, the prime minister asks why the UK is so slow at building homes? As the government’s own Letwin review of build-out rates identified in 2018, we are too dependent on too few house-builders, all delivering the same kind of homes. We need to diversify this process by funding small builders, community-led housing, housing associations and most critically of all, council housing. Over the past 10 years the planning system approved more than 2.5m homes, but only 1.5m of these have been built. Developers complain of delays in the planning system, but there are more than a million homes with permission that we’re waiting on those same developers to complete.

As far as investment in the built environment and infrastructure is concerned, speed and quantity have to be aligned with quality. Diluting standards will result in lower quality and lower costs for developers but not lower prices, in a housing market where supply continues to trail far behind demand. Deregulation does not guarantee more homes. After three years of unpicking the trail of deregulation that led to the Grenfell Tower fire, and three months of seeing the impacts of existing housing inequalities deepened by the lockdown, it’s shocking that the government is not only loosening planning rules, but continuing to allow homes to be built outside the planning system.

Permitted development rights were first expanded to allow the conversion of offices to homes without planning permission in 2013. Since then, only 30% of the homes built this way have met national space requirements. The government’s 2019 Building Better, Building Beautiful commission came to the conclusion that “beauty should be an essential condition for the grant of planning permission”. None of these homes meet that standard – but then, none of them needed to be granted planning permission either.

Last year the government promised to carry out a review of the quality of homes created through permitted development. Yet before the review has seen the light of day, permitted development rights have been extended further. Most ironically, this building process makes no contributions to local infrastructure, affordable housing or planning fees – all serving to create an infrastructure deficit. Thus the only tangible proposal in Johnson’s great infrastructure speech this week actively reduces our infrastructure capacity.

The government has also opted not to be ambitious about raising environmental standards broadly enough to really confront the challenges of a climate crisis in part caused by the construction industry – such as the problem of embodied carbon in building materials. Nor has the government made any clear attempts to encourage biodiversity, just as many people have gained a renewed appreciation for nature in their living surroundings – even for newts.

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The final, most significant aspect of Johnson’s speech was another absence. He promised “the most radical changes to our planning system since the second world war” without explaining what they would be. A planning policy statement is expected this month, and is anticipated to include proposals for zoning, development corporations and a “fast track for beauty”. There is an opportunity to put public planning back on the front foot, but only if it is not undermined by deregulation.

We need changes that could help communities to engage with planning earlier; where they can influence the big decisions instead of being presented with fait-accomplis. We need reforms that empower planners to be proactive and creative, to demand quality and shape development before the market forms its own expectations and fixes its own price. We need to give the public sector the structures and strength to get back into building good homes at scale.

But none of this will happen if planning continues to be vilified as a tick-box process, if local authorities aren’t given the resources to plan proactively, and if the government sees its role as simply getting out of the way.

• Finn Williams is co-founder of the Public Practice, a non-profit social enterprise building the public sector’s capacity for proactive planning. David Chipperfield is founder and design principal of David Chipperfield Architects

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