Politics is being painted in primary colours. Ministers are promising a green building boom to win over a new blue wave of Tory voters in old Labour red-wall seats. What happens when you mix these colours together? You end up with a brown mess.
The Government has big ideas about reforming the planning system. The man announcing them is Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, whose last brush with planning was a ghastly Tory fundraising dinner when he entangled himself with Richard Desmond, a generous party donor who wanted help getting permission for a site in east London.
If politics wasn’t transfixed by coronavirus, Jenrick might be on the backbenches for that. Instead he’s promising to rip up the planning rulebook to boost building.
A White Paper is being launched today – while Parliament is away so MPs can’t make a fuss.
If you love the English countryside, admire good design in city streets and don’t want a future of soulless housing estates by motorway junctions where the closest you come to human interaction may be opening the door to receive an online delivery, this is bleak news.
But let’s try giving the Government the benefit of the doubt. It has a point that the current planning system isn’t working well. Change — of the right kind — might improve it. Under current rules, an awful lot of very bad housing is being built for very big profits.
Faux- Tudor pretend detatched homes are springing up on the edges of towns where they have been dumped by local plans trying to meet targets: exactly the sort of places which force people into car use, pump out carbon emissions and do nothing to encourage community life.
In London, a lot of money and precious land has gone into building two-bedroom flats (always promoted as gracious “apartments”) in glass towers which turn property into an investment.
The world which encouraged these feels distant now that central London is deserted and global travel on hold.
This could be a chance to think of a way of doing things better. Covid will leave a lot of empty shops on London’s high streets and office blocks in our city that don’t have a purpose. Making it simpler to reuse buildings like these by allowing them to become homes is a good idea — if they don’t become windowless rabbit hutches.
This isn’t the first Government to say it will slash red tape. There have been almost as many changes to planning legislation since rules came in in 1947 as there are days in the year. It’s less than a decade since Oliver Letwin, in the Coalition government, pushed for more local decision making about where homes would be built, in return for a requirement imposed from above that they would happen.
Now the Government thinks that system is holding development back and it is proposing to split England, like ancient Gaul, into three parts. One will be ranked for “growth”. Another for “renewal”. A third for “protection”.
As someone who led a review last year for the Government into how we should make our most beautiful landscapes better for nature and for people, I want to see places such as National Parks protected from bad development — although that shouldn’t mean no change and no building at all.
Slum clearance in east London saw good terraces bulldozed in the Sixties for shoddy flats
Doing it properly will take a sharp toughening up of the restrictions which are supposed to protect Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including many under huge development pressure, such as the Chilterns and the High Weald, south of the capital.
But what happens in the rest of England matters, too and the new proposals are worrying. What will permission for “growth” mean? Much unprotected countryside is very special.
Urban London needs better design, not a free for all.
Stripping back rules is being justified because it will make housing more affordable. But is that true? Maybe not, if big developers remain in control of supply and property remains one of the few dependable assets.
For every voter who thinks a sharp fall in prices would be good news and get them a place to live at last there will be others desperate not to see the value of their homes slashed.
A lot of things hold back building including a lack of skilled people to do the work (Brexit migration rules won’t help here) and the cost of land. Eight out of 10 planning applications are already approved under current rules. Lots of sites have permission already but don’t get built.
That suggests it is our development model, not just the planning system which is the problem. We need a steady flow of building on sites which are managed over years to create liveable places, not quick turnaround profits.
It’s true that planning doesn’t in itself guarantee good housing — a lot of the stuff put up in the 70 years since we insisted on tight rules has been dreadful: think of slum clearance in east London which saw good terraces bulldozed in the Sixties for shoddy flats. But rules can help, if we get them right.
The Government should take advice from its awkwardly named Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, which reported recently.
Today’s planning system means that things such as mews houses down quiet alleys, which sell for millions today, couldn’t actually be built now. It’s easier to get permission for an ugly, land-hungry scheme than a compact, creative, low-carbon one.
What won’t work is allowing anything to be built, of any quality, on any land not listed for protection, under the false belief that the only thing holding people back from getting homes are planning laws.
The winners from that will be big developers. As the £1 billion profit made by just one of them last year, Persimmon, shows, they don’t need even more help to get rich.