The announcement last week of wide-ranging planning reforms are an acknowledgement that – if Government is to meet its ambitious housing targets – change is needed.
The key measures, launched by George Osborne as the centrepiece of the Fixing the Foundations report, include:
- The introduction of a new zonal system in which developers will receive automatic planning permission for the development of suitable brownfield sites
- New powers enabling government to force councils to allocate greenfield land for development
- Fines for councils who do not make planning decisions quickly enough
- Strengthened compulsory purchase powers for local authorities to take control of land for development
- An extension of permitted development rights, allowing easier change of use
In London, homeowners will be allowed to add additional floors to their property, up to the height of their neighbours, without needing planning permission. The report also encourages developers to build more densely, perhaps suggesting a greater focus on modern residential towers.
But what do these reforms mean for the localism agenda?
The measures represent the biggest gear change in planning policy since the reforms of 2011, which formed the planning wing of the Big Society agenda. Localism in planning sought to put communities and councils back in control of development, with Local Development Frameworks providing a clearer pathway towards strategic housebuilding and with increased powers for residents to intervene in decisions in their area.
This latest announcement, then, has to be seen as an admission that it has failed to deliver.
The development community have long expressed concerns over the impact of the 2011 planning reforms. The development process has slowed to snail’s pace, with the current system encouraging NIMBYism and making it too easy for committees to kick applications into appeal.
Government, though, is keen not to be seen to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The Chancellor has pointed to growing Greenbelt development and suggested that the reforms are beginning to work.
The reality is that the measures announced last week, which still need approval from MPs, will meet Localism half way. The recent election campaign tells us that the Chancellor is someone who is clearly keen on donning the high vis and hard hat to meet a young family in a new build. But with one eye on Number 10, he will be looking to achieve a balance between pleasing those new homeowners currently unable to get a foot on the ladder, and alienating those in traditional ‘true blue’ shires who will oppose aggressive development.
These announcements signal an attempt to preserve the decentralisation of control but with a simple message to local authorities:
Get on with it, or we’ll get on with it for you.