3 August 2020

Are these the biggest planning reforms since the war? Let’s hope so


Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has just tantalisingly announced a “radical” set of reforms to our “outdated and cumbersome planning system”. His diagnosis will strike a chord with anyone who has tried to build something, and with economic historians who think fixing the planning system will raise GDP by 20%. Reform is welcome and long overdue, if the details he will publish this week are workable. There is everything to play for.

New developments “will be beautiful places” and new streets must have trees, because good design is “the best antidote to local objections to building”. It would certainly be a refreshing change.

As Mr Jenrick rightly notes, local building plans have become “lengthy and absurdly complex documents and accompanying policies understandable only to the lawyers who feast upon every word”. It takes an average of five years for a standard housing development to go through the planning system. Small builders will be delighted that he wants them to thrive.

Mr Jenrick will introduce a new zoning system as recommended by the Prime Minister’s special adviser, Jack Airey. Councils will consult locals and divide the country into areas designated for “growth”, “renewal” or “protection”, with automatic approval for schemes in greenfield “growth areas” that are in line with the development plan and the design code. Urban and brownfield sites marked for “renewal” could have a “permission in principle”, perhaps with official “pattern books”, to be consulted on.

Those hoping for green belt reform will be disappointed, unless Mr Jenrick has some magic up his sleeve. Our “rich heritage” will also be protected. Does that mean no change near historic buildings, or will he propose a workable way to ensure change is positive?

Front-loading design questions for greenfield sites will doubtless help, if the system is fixed to ensure design conditions can no longer be stripped away by developers on appeal, as at present.

All this will unlock “land and new opportunities”, “provide secure housing for the vulnerable”, and “bridge the generational divide”.

Bad planning has caused such an appalling shortage of homes that the total price of Britain’s housing stock is about £4 trillion more it would cost to build today. It is the most obvious of the trillions of pounds lying on the floor to be picked up that Dominic Cummings has described.

And the £4 trillion question is what carrots and sticks Mr Jenrick will deploy to achieve all this. Good design will help, but it is not remotely sufficient for residents concerned about congestion of roads, schools, healthcare and parks, about the dust, noise and disruption from building, and about the loss of the countryside that many of them would prefer to any buildings, however beautiful.

The builders of London’s first underground line had to close Euston Road to dig it up, and residents had to walk across planks to reach their front doors. Nowadays that would cause a riot.

Bear in mind too that councils can already allow much more housing if they want, but choose not to. Manhattan has a zoning system, but it has become so restrictive that two-fifths of existing buildings would be illegal to build today. In the areas in which we should be building housing, the few homes that are built mainly result from targets imposed by the Government.

Is Mr Jenrick going to increase those targets and impose harsher penalties on councils that fail to meet them? If so, how can we be sure his successors won’t reduce them at the behest of disgruntled locals? Or does he have a big carrot up his sleeve, something to make development actually desirable to neighbours and local communities?

Is it still Government policy, as spelled out to the Letwin Review, for house prices to rise, albeit slower than wages, or have they found a way to make plentiful supply a vote winner?

The planning system has two problems. The first is that it is outdated, cumbersome, legalistic and slow. Mr Jenrick’s determination to fix that is excellent news.

The other problem is that incentives are totally broken. We have a command and control system governing land use that was never intended to achieve win-win, welfare increasing outcomes, tested against markets – unlike the laws that, over centuries, led to nearly every place most loved today, and unlike the laws that govern every other aspect of a market economy.

Fixing those incentives so that locals actually want new development is the only way to get radical, lasting improvement. The reforms will apparently include greater contributions by developers for local infrastructure. Our suggestions of things to try have now been backed by the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Centre for Cities and Jacob Rees-Mogg, among many others. The nation’s future depends on what Mr Jenrick unveils this week. We may not see another government with this majority and ambition for a long time. It is crucial that he does not miss his mark.

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John Myers is co-founder of London YIMBY, a grassroots campaign to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.