Tories' planning reforms are profoundly wrong


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During the health and jobs crises created by Coronavirus, it’s odd perhaps to write an article on planning. However, I must. As your MP, I have to alert you to this Government’s reforms to planning laws which could seriously damage your road, your neighbourhood and our Borough.

In new planning laws already pushed through Parliament and in proposed new planning laws in a White Paper, this Government is taking away your democratic voice over planning policy and will prevent you from objecting to planning applications that directly affect you and your property.

The justifications behind these planning reforms are at best flawed. And while they purport to be addressing the country’s need for more housing, they will not.

Planning reforms already passed

Last month, new laws passed the Commons that allow developers, without planning permission, to:

  • add up to two new floors on to any block of flats;
  • demolish and rebuild empty buildings;
  • allow people to add multiple floors to their homes.

This means that you as local residents, and your locally elected councillors, will have no power or say in stopping or even commenting on such proposals.

As one Conservative MP said, leaseholders could suffer extra floors added to their building without any consultation. He added that freeholders, by contrast, had been “given a gift…of billions of pounds.”

Across Berrylands and Surbiton, there are many such buildings. Thousands of such leaseholders. I can confirm, I voted against these shocking new laws.

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Planning reforms planned

But it gets worse.

The Government’s latest proposals for the planning system go much further. Based on some new algorithm, a Whitehall computer will tell each Council and every community how many homes it must build. You might have thought the Government might not rely on an algorithm to run the country, after this year’s chaos with A-levels and young people’s futures. But no. An algorithm is going to dictate where the nation’s future homes are built.

Even before this, Whitehall was ordering Kingston to build eye-watering amounts of new homes: the White Paper containing these undemocratic plans implies the algorithmic solution for Kingston will be even more homes.

And it gets worse.

Currently, planning law has two stages. First, it requires a council to develop its local plan, in consultation with local residents. And second, anyone wanting to build a property, or make major alterations, has to submit a planning application, which has to be consulted on, and voted on by local councillors.

Effectively, that second stage will go, under the Government’s new plans.

And there are other flaws in the plans. The ability of councils to insist on affordable homes will largely go, for example.

It’s not just Liberal Democrat MPs objecting to these changes.  A certain Theresa May said these plans were “ill-conceived” and “mechanistic”.

It seems, under the cover of Covid, Johnson-Cummings want to tear up the planning regime that’s existed since 1947.

Why these reforms are unnecessary

Supporters of these planning reforms say it’s all about building new homes – and say the planning system is the biggest barrier to this.

Despite the facts proving that wrong. In the past 4 years, councils have granted planning permission for, respectively, 291,000, 370,000, 383,300 and 371,800 homes.

The problem is the house building industry is not completing on those permissions. In the last 4 years of published completions, the industry’s under-delivery is revealed, respectively with 155,078, 163,939, 183, 571 and 195,294 new homes.

What should happen to build more homes

First, we need a housebuilding industry with the capacity to build the homes. The shortage of skilled people has been a real problem.

A government review published 2 years ago concluded “an insufficient supply of bricklayers would be a binding constraint in the immediate future, if there was not either a substantial move away from brick-built homes, or a significant import of more skilled bricklayers from abroad, or an implausibly rapid move to modular construction techniques.”

Perhaps the current recession will help. Brexit won’t.

Second, we need to build more social and council homes, directed by the public sector. When Britain current housing and planning system did work well, that coincided with several decades of local authorities being allowed to carry out substantial amounts of housebuilding.

I’m sorry if this article has depressed you.

But I am deeply worried about the centralisation of political power in this country over many things. And yet this Government’s plan now, is to centralise even further the control of what happens in our community.

To cap it all, these reforms take no account of the significant changes to our working lives, to our daily travel and to where people will want to live, post-Covid, post-Zoom.

These planning reforms are profoundly wrong. 

This article first appeared in A Berrylands Companion in October 2020.


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