Adam Hesse takes a look at the Government’s recent announcements and finds a change of perspective puts the proposals in a rather different light.
When the Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised back in June that his Government was going to deliver “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War”, it was music to our ears.
At long last, it seemed that the sort of sweeping changes we’ve been demanding for over a decade were going to be introduced, allowing the house-building this country desperately needs to begin in earnest. Restrictions would be lifted, applications would be fast-tracked, and the whole process re-engineered to suit the development requirements of the 21st century.
Some two months later however, now that the dust has settled, it’s clear that the truth is rather different. As with so many Government announcements – and this is true for announcements from Governments of all political colours – closer examination of the proposals indicates that they are not what they initially seem. Whilst expectations about the new reforms were high, and heralded though they may have been at the time, they now remind us of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes…
Make no mistake – ANY improvements to our tired, outdated, and unfit-for-purpose planning system should be welcomed. But our concern is that the impressive rhetoric of the announcements tend to drown out the reality of what they will entail – and more importantly, what real ‘freedoms’ they will permit.
For example, take the claim that builders will no longer need a “normal planning application to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes”.
Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Especially as in early July Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed that the “planning freedom” to demolish would be done via new ‘Permitted Development’ (PD) rights, rather than the lengthier, two-stage ‘Permission in Principle’ (PiP) route.
But look a little deeper and you’ll uncover a whole raft of conditions that will make the impact of any changes extremely limited. For example, buildings must have been “entirely vacant for at least six months prior to the date of the application for prior approval” and built before 1 January 1990. What’s more, a new building cannot be larger than the footprint of the existing building and cannot exceed a maximum size of 1,000 square metres – which in development terms is pretty small. Similarly, the local authority must decide on an application for prior approval within eight weeks, after which the applicant has a right of appeal to the secretary of state. For many developers, this will feel like submitting a planning application in all but name.
Plenty of exemptions are listed too. The new regulations do not permit conversion of any “public house, wine bar, or drinking establishment”, “drinking establishment with expanded food provision”, hot food takeaway, live music venue, cinema, concert hall, bingo hall and or dance hall.
The trouble with this blanket ban is that it takes a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The last remaining pub in a village should obviously be protected as a valuable community asset. But if there are a dozen closed pubs in a town – some of which are highly unlikely to ever open again – then a more tailored, bespoke solution is needed.
The truth is that many of our town centres need to be remodelled and many more will need to be transformed after the Covid crisis is over. The problem is less about individual properties and more about the planning process itself. The whole system needs a root and branch overhaul – which would also help protect against bad development in the future. In fact, if the right reforms had been introduced ten years ago, we wouldn’t have a shortage of property now.
This is not to say there aren’t promising improvements to the old system. For example, buildings will be allowed to be up to seven metres higher to accommodate up to two additional residential storeys, within a final overall maximum height of 18 metres. This is a sensible and welcome decision.
We also don’t want to deny that this represents progress of a sort. Some aspects of our lives as developers will be made easier; some applications will make it through the system more quickly; some permissions will be granted with less fuss.
But as they stand, the proposals are somewhat half-hearted. If the government genuinely wants the radical reforms it promised back in late June, it needs to act in a more joined-up manner. It needs to be braver to allow the procedures that will make a real difference. It needs to truly believe in a simpler system – and run with it.
So, unlike the Emperor’s New Clothes, it’s wouldn’t be true to say that there’s really nothing to see in the Government’s new reforms. But look a little closer and what becomes apparent is that their original claims have been dressed up way beyond recognition.