Planning reform is an issue which never fails to generate a vocal response from the Conservative backbenches, as we make every effort to defend our constituencies from the loss of greenfield sites and the urbanisation of the suburbs.
For years, the party’s leadership has pushed for a more and more aggressive approach on building. High housing targets have made it increasingly difficult for councils to turn down controversial building proposals. They face the threat that rejecting an application will be overturned on appeal by planning inspectors on the grounds that the development is needed to meet the target. In London, this problem is made worse by the Mayor inflicting excessive and unachievable house-building targets on the boroughs.
The latest attempt by the Government to reform the planning system is contained in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LUR Bill) which received its second reading in Parliament yesterday. The withdrawal of the so-called ‘mutant algorithm’ last year has been greeted by some as indicating that the Government has seen the light and given way to backbench concerns on overdevelopment.
The retreat from the super-high targets this algorithm would have generated was indeed an important concession. So too is the killing off the zonal planning proposals which were the centre-piece of the Jenrick proposals contained in the 2020 Planning for the Future White Paper. That would have seen local input into decisions on what is built in areas zoned for growth removed altogether. I strongly opposed these plans and very much welcome their demise.
But winning those important battles does not mean the row is over. Michael Gove, the Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities Secretary has sought to signal the end of hostilities in the long conflict on planning between Conservative backbenchers and the Government. But his LUR Bill does not do this. It does not rein in the planning inspectorate, it has no new protections for greenfield sites, and it does not reduce or disapply housing targets.
The Bill has a welcome focus on better design, but this does not resolve the problems which I and my colleagues have been raising. Loss of precious green space remains problematic, even if what is built on it is well designed. A block of flats is still a block of flats, no matter how tastefully it is presented. And in one very important respect, the Bill worsens the problems I have been highlighting on the erosion of local control over planning.
Clauses 83 and 84 of the Bill empower the Secretary of State to set Development Management Policies at a national level which will override policies in local plans. This is a major change in planning policy because it departs from the long-held planning principle that primacy should be given to locally elected councillors making decisions on the basis of an approved local plan.
Local Development Management Policies cover many crucial matters, such as protecting neighbourhood character, location of tall buildings, affordable housing and open spaces. These policies are at the heart of almost all planning decisions. Locally set development management policies form a bulwark of defence against inappropriate development. Centralised control over them could lead to radical consequences and force councils to approve many planning applications which they would previously have rejected.
This change is a survivor from the flawed Planning for the Future White Paper. It amounts to a power-grab by the centre and I am calling for it to be dropped. The Secretary of State has hinted that he accepts the need for some rebalancing of the relationship between councils and the planning inspectorate, so that local decisions are given greater weight. The policy paper published alongside the Bill indicates that his intention is to remove the controversial requirement for a rolling five-year supply of deliverable land for housing, so long as an authority has a valid local plan in place.
If implemented, this change could be helpful, but it is impossible to say without more detail. So far, a few lines in a policy paper appears to be all we have on this. These proposals are not in the Bill and, even if implemented, it seems that they may not apply to areas which have already embarked on the process of adopting a new plan. If they have an impact, it therefore may not be felt for several years, by which time many green field sites could already have been lost.
So there is more work to be done before the Bill now before Parliament can truly be said to rebalance the planning system and restore the power of locally elected councillors to determine what is built in their neighbourhood.
We need to scrap the mandatory housing targets which have done so much to undermine those powers. I will be urging Ministers to use this Bill as an opportunity to bring an end to the practice whereby predatory developers can use these targets, and the five year land supply obligations they impose, to inflict overdevelopment on unwilling communities.
If they go under the bulldozer, our green fields are lost forever. If suburban areas like my Chipping Barnet constituency are built over by high rise blocks of flats, they are damaged and changed forever. Ministers are clear that they are willing to listen. So I very much hope that before the LUR Bill completes its way through Parliament, we will see it amended and strengthened so that we clip the wings of an increasingly over-mighty planning inspectorate, we restore the primacy of local decision-making, and we safeguard the places in which our constituents live.
The post Theresa Villiers: The Government must not centralise control over planning first appeared on Conservative Home.
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Author: Theresa Villiers MP
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