Robert Jenrick believes Covid-19 offers “great opportunities” for turning empty shops and offices into houses, as he confirmed a rethink of proposed planning system reforms.
City and town centres are undergoing the “most substantial change” since the 1940s as a result of the pandemic and there is a need to “pause for reflection” on the opportunities available, according to the Housing Secretary.
He told MPs he expects the Government to follow a “different approach” to distributing housing numbers across the country.
Former prime minister Theresa May is among the Tory opponents of the planned housing algorithm to decide where to build 300,000 new homes.
It is feared the algorithm, which allocates an annual house building target in each area of England based on demand, regional affordability and population growth, could lead to big increases of building in rural areas.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Jenrick told MPs: “We are witnessing a profound reshaping of our towns and high streets as Covid-19 continues to have a very significant impact on our communities.”
He also said: “As Covid-19 presents great opportunities for repurposing of offices and retail, we need to seize that moment and ensure we get more housing into our town centres.
“That’s the way we’ll drive footfall and we’ll turn empty shops into thriving homes.
“We’ve already put in place new planning reforms to enable people to do just that, as well as to demolish vacant buildings and to turn them into housing and we’ll continue to find new flexibilities in the months and years ahead to do just that.”
Conservative Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) said: “Given the likely response to Covid is going to mean that office space is going to be much less needed in the future, and this is likely to be a long-term trend, does (Mr Jenrick) agree that this should have a profound impact on the algorithmic distribution of housing numbers anticipated by the housing white paper?”
Mr Jenrick replied: “I think (Mr Mayhew) makes an important point. I think we are seeing the most substantial change to our city centres and town centres since the Second World War and that does give us pause for reflection.
“I think we now need to consider what those opportunities will be for the repurposing of offices into residential, for turning retail into mixed use and that will I think lead us to a different approach to distributing housing numbers across the country.”
Mr Jenrick said a consultation on the reforms has closed, the responses are being considered and he will make a statement “in the weeks ahead”.
Several Conservative MPs lined up to criticise the Government’s proposed reforms during a Commons debate in October.
Mrs May agreed that more homes need to be built but called on the Government to “think again” as its proposed algorithm does not guarantee this happening.
She said last month: “The strongest argument against this algorithm is that it simply does not deliver a single extra home.”
Mrs May added: “What this algorithm does is build up planning permissions, it doesn’t build houses.”