'Build, build, build' – Radical reform or empty rhetoric?

This week’s rallying cry from Boris Johnson looks to the construction industry to drive our recovery out of the COVID-19 crisis.

The ambition is clear - the ‘most radical reform to our planning system since the Second World War’, making it easier to build better homes where people want to live.

On the surface, this appears a welcome move – a boost to the economy and jobs market and a solution to the long-talked about housing crisis. In its Rooseveltian roots – the plan promises to ‘build back better, build back greener and build back faster’.

The range of measures includes:

  • Easing restrictions for the conversion of commercial properties including newly vacant shops.
  • Redefining the outdated use class system allowing total flexibility enabling properties to be repurposed and brought back into use,
  • Relaxed rules on the demolition and rebuilding of vacant residential and commercial buildings where new homes are proposed.
  • The ability to extend upwards above existing residential flats to build additional flats.
  • £12 billion affordable homes programme seeking to create 180,000 new affordable homes in the next eight years
  • The launching of a planning policy paper in July seeking to reform England’s seven decade-old planning system.

Radical reform? Or another empty rhetoric?

Few people will deny that the planning system is an antiquated dinosaur, which needs to be more agile, more flexible and better resourced. However, reform has been the clarion call of virtually every government since the inception of the modern planning system in 1948.  All promise radical reform - most regrettably fail.

I have spoken frequently about the need to reinvigorate and re-purpose our town and city centres.  The proposals to ease planning rules to allow flexible uses and the conversion of commercial and retail premises is a positive move.  I am a firm believer that encouraging people back into our towns and cities is imperative to their survival.

Tinkering with permitted development rights, will undoubtedly deliver additional homes - but not necessarily where people wish to live. Permitted development rights have been heavily criticised in the past – the government’s own advisory panel referred to the homes created by this policy as ‘slums’. So, it is clear that if this is to be a successful strategy, it must come with stringent controls on developers to build homes that people want to live in.

Easing development control for commercial premises and shops is to be applauded - however if any government is to really get to grips with the broken planning system then it must examine how decisions are made and by whom.

Since the dawning of the coalition government of Cameron and Clegg, the mantra has been one of localism - allowing local people to decide where the homes and businesses to serve the community’s needs will be sited.  As a soundbite this is a great policy. In practice, locals (with very few exceptions) will resist change.  Whilst local people will often acknowledge the need for additional homes and businesses, they will rarely wish such to see homes and businesses built close to them.

A radical reform in my lexicon would be to change entirely the way decisions are made, decision-making is too parochial and there are too many local vested interests which regrettably all too often delay decision-making or in some instances stop proposals proceeding altogether.

In conclusion, the jury is out for now - Boris has made great promises, he must now deliver on those promises and I look forward to the forthcoming planning policy review scheduled for later this month.