Scratch beneath the surface, and you don’t have to look hard to find evidence that concerns about inappropriate local development may already be harming Tory electoral chances, particularly in the South East.
Although last week’s local elections were an overall success, worryingly, we saw a series of surprising losses in once safe seats. These voters are often denounced as Nimbys, but the truth is that the vast majority of people accept the need for new homes.
They are justifiably angry, however, when that development comes at the expense of existing residents, and when they feel like they have no control over what is happening to their local area.
Now, the Government plans a major shake-up of the planning laws on top of countless other reforms in recent years. I know that changes to planning policy are normally something only an anorak-wearer would find interesting. Yet these plans, heralded in the Queen’s Speech this week, are enormously important. And unless their deficiencies and existing problems are addressed, I fear that they will not only result in yet more inappropriate development but will further undermine public support, including in once rock-solid Conservative areas.
Just consider what has been happening in constituencies like mine, in London’s outer boroughs. Over the past few years, local authorities in the capital have been hurling a barrage of plans for tall buildings at areas that are otherwise dominated by family homes. Too many councils see the suburbs as a lot of wasted space which should be filled in via densification.
At present, their plans to build tall buildings regardless of the impact are being fought by local residents, whose reasonable wish is simply to retain the character of their homes, which they worked hard for and which they want to bring their families up in. Their ask to the Government is to find ways to accommodate their concerns. Current rules allow them to object to development plans, but this doesn’t always succeed even when the council is reasonable.
Instead of protecting those under the cosh, however, the Government’s proposals could make the present situation worse. That’s because the legislation proposed in the Queen’s Speech could see local input into planning decisions removed for areas newly-designated in England as Growth Zones. In these zones, that democratic involvement in the planning system could be tossed to one side.
This would leave local residents with no say over new developments, as there would be no planning application to object to.
Ah, we are reassured, such actions would be protected by the local plan, which residents would have the right to help shape. Yet central government will reserve the right in future to reject and override any local plan if it deems that there is not enough development in a particular area. In fact, they could create an incentive for determined developers to seek judicial reviews to ensure that the land they want developed is included in such a Growth Zone.
Add to that the proposal for “General Development Management Policies” to be set nationally and we are verging on an unprecedented centralisation of powers over planning. I worry that such a move would accelerate the process to build many high density building projects, as well as other building that is out of character with local areas, some even previously blocked by residents.
And this isn’t even to mention the proposals to extend personal development rights (PDRs), which will allow commercial premises to be turned into flats. This further erodes local influence over development, as these PDRs allow developers to retain the right to build upwards and with little required infrastructure.
Ministers have previously shown that they are willing to listen to concern about their plans. When they heard from the public and backbench MPs that an algorithm they had proposed for determining where new development should take place would have been mechanistic and ill-focused, they dropped those plans. Now they need to listen again.
We can all agree that there is a need to overhaul the planning rules, not least to ensure the greater use of brown field sites for development. We all want many more people to enjoy the security of home ownership. And one way we truly could kick-start the building programme would be to make developers build out the permissions they already have and ensure that they start on-site work within two years or their permission would lapse.
Yet the planning rules need to be carefully thought-through without risking a politically dangerous backlash. Even now residents feel under huge pressure from unwanted and unwarranted development. Let us not make a bad situation even worse.