“The reality of modern Britain is that the local is fighting back”.
Planning secretary Robert Jenrick’s climbdown over his planning white paper is welcome. Its core proposal for houses to be built according to a Whitehall formula – the so-called “mutant algorithm” – emerged in August reputedly at the bidding of the building lobby, eager to boost their development land-banks in the south-east. It has collapsed under a barrage of protest from southern Tory constituencies that faced being concreted over and northern cities that Jenrick was going to starve of housing subsidies.
The reality of modern Britain is that the local is fighting back. It is no longer unusual for provincial counties and towns to be mentioned on the BBC. In one hour I recently heard Manchester, Leicester, Stratford, Hereford and Kent all demanding freedom to fix their own lockdown strategies. Others have sought to regulate their own schools or distribute their own furlough grants. But nothing has evoked greater fury than Jenrick’s stripping local councils of planning powers.
The Jenrick formula demanded that every community in England build a precise number of houses dictated by Whitehall, irrespective of local wishes. It was rumoured to be rooted in the medieval principle that a “local need” for housing was determined by local births, marriages, divorces and deaths, as if today’s population did not travel. This was then adjusted by price to yield a “need” figure.
The bias towards development in the south-east was massive. It decided house-building should decline by 28% in the north-east but rise by 633% in Kensington.
Horsham was told to cram its entire past century of growth into the next 10 years. I am not aware of any country in the world, except possibly China, with so arithmetically top-down a plan. It would have made Lenin blush. Such an idea would not have passed first base under most prime ministers, if only for its political ineptitude.
Policy to Boris Johnson is a matter of slogans. He appears not to have noticed that his cry of ““build, build, build”now contradicted his cry of “we must level-up the north”. Nor did he notice that he had opposed 514 homes in his own south-east constituency, including a 12-storey tower that he called “wholly out of character for the locality”. This was laughable, given his tower infatuation as London mayor.
Jenrick now has two tasks. He has promised to bring some sanity to his housing formula. He would do better to scrap it altogether. Local people can best judge whether and where they want their communities to grow, and there is no evidence they automatically oppose it. Besides, they have some collective rights to decide such matters in a democracy.
Subsidies should then be concentrated – as Jenrick now proposes – on the renewal of brownfield land especially outside the south- east. He should honour Johnson’s levelling up. He should worry less about his developers and look at the scandal of empty sites, under-occupancy and housing vacancy. The luxury towers, many foreign owned, that now line the Thames in London are reportedly half empty, but they will doubtless contribute to Jenrick’s 300,000 new “homes”. For most people a home implies a place someone lives, not a shell.
Britain’s housing policy is chaotic. The rental sector requires urgent review. Property taxes are too low, renting is too insecure, but at the same time incentives to sublet empty space are inadequate. It is absurd that repairs and conversions attract full VAT while new-build is VAT-free. If Jenrick is bereft of good advice, ask the Germans or the Dutch.
As for the future of British planning, it is still up for grabs. The reason for the most drastic reform of British planning in half a century was Jenrick’s allegation that “it takes an average of five years for a standard housing development to go through the planning system”. This developers’ gossip is simply untrue. The BBC’s Reality Check could find only five big developments that had taken that long, while Whitehall’s own figures showed that 89% of major applications were decided “within 13 weeks or the agreed time”. Delay was usually caused by developers themselves going to lengthy appeal.
As for landscape conservation, the August white paper implied that, subject to central targets, areas of rural land could still be declared “protected”. The paper nowhere defined what should qualify. Meanwhile, outside these protected areas, almost any building is to be permitted without so much as planning permission. This is like arming the police and allowing them to shoot on sight.
Most protests at the new system have pointed out that the current system is not broken, except insofar as it allows builders to build land banks against rising prices. This is already rampant. The CPRE claims land for 1.3m homes is lying idle, with permits already in place for more than half a million of them.
A planning lawyer of my acquaintance considers the dropped proposals so vague that, far from Johnson’s “build, build, build”, they would have meant the opposite, “a lawyer’s paradise”.
All is not bad. There is virtue in the white paper’s concept of zoning for different degrees of development. There is virtue too in its design code and calls for “more beauty”, though not a whisper about who should enforce it if at all. What is unarguable is that planning matters to the entire appearance of Britain. Bruised and abused over the decades, that appearance remains each generation’s lasting legacy to the next.
Bad planning is for all time. Jenrick has spent the past year playing with dynamite. The former Tory leadership contender Jeremy Hunt accused him of nothing less than undermining local democracy. Now his humiliation of local government has exploded in his face. It shows that two can play at another Johnson slogan – “Take back control”.
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