Ministers drop shake-up of planning laws

The government had planned to introduce a zonal system, stripping back the rights of locals to object to new houses
The government had planned to introduce a zonal system, stripping back the rights of locals to object to new housesALAMY

George Grylls, Political Reporter Saturday September 11 2021, 12.00pm, The Times

The biggest shake-up of planning laws for 70 years is set to be abandoned after a backlash from voters and Tory MPs in southern England.

Reforms designed to help ministers hit a target of 300,000 new homes annually by the middle of the decade will be watered down, The Times understands.

The government had intended to rip up the planning application process and replace it with a zonal system, stripping homeowners of their rights to object to new houses. It said that councils would also be given mandatory housebuilding targets.

Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, will announce a more limited set of changes. Tory MPs blamed the planning overhaul for their party’s shock defeat by the Liberal Democrats at the Chesham & Amersham by-election in June.

The need for wholesale reform has been questioned after developers set records for housebuilding. Almost 244,000 homes were built in 2019-20, the highest number since the late 1980s, and developers appear to have coped well with the pandemic.

In the first three months of this year construction began on 46,010 dwellings, an increase of a third on the same period last year and the highest number of quarterly starts for 14 years. There are more than 1.1 million homes with planning permission waiting to be built, analysis by the Local Government Association has found.

Ministers are expected to abandon their intention to make housebuilding targets mandatory. The zonal system proposed last year is also likely to be dropped — although councils could be asked to designate “growth sites” where there is a presumption in favour of development and planning applications will be fast-tracked.

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser, said in July that the government had already achieved its aims for housing reform by slipping through changes to the planning system this year.

Cummings said that an expansion of Permitted Development Rights (PDRs), which let developers turn high-street businesses into flats and add two storeys to existing buildings without planning permission, had passed unnoticed in Westminster. The changes had been “barely discussed publicly” so that Tory MPs would not get “over-excited”.

A Whitehall source said: “The changes we made this year have been received positively and we’re hearing of examples of them being put to good use and helping our high streets.”

The backbenchers are likely to seek more concessions. Bob Seely, a leading rebel, said: “Communities . . . have a right to demand to be listened to without being shouted down by the Westminster elite as so-called nimbys.”

Labour welcomed the prospect of the reforms being watered down. Steve Reed, the shadow housing secretary, said: “The government must confirm that their rotten developers’ charter is well and truly dead – and tell the country how they will now find a much better way to deliver the new housing this country so desperately needs.”

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We will not comment on speculation. Our response to the consultation will be released in due course.”

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