Article for The Telegraph

12th October 2020

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown writes for The Telegraph.

The recent furor over A-level results has left us with a clear lesson – no matter the government’s good intentions, bad formulas and rushed policy will lead to bad outcomes.

A new example of this is looming on planning policy. As a chartered surveyor with a broad knowledge of the planning process and our built environment, I recognise that the system needs reform.

However, when it comes to planning, I’m concerned that the Government has misdiagnosed what ails us and therefore prescribed the wrong solutions in its recently published Planning White Paper. My fear is that if implemented as suggested, the impact could be catastrophic.

We have been assured that local people will have more say under a new planning system, but if these reforms went ahead, community input in the planning process could effectively be halved.

It’s essential that as many people as wish to be involved in the planning system should be able to do so and that Neighborhood plans are respected in these changes. Otherwise people will feel that development is being imposed on them rather than having the opportunity to be able to shape the future of their local built environment.

The Government maintains that planning reform will support the "levelling up" agenda, but binding and centrally-set housing targets will entrench the dominance of the big builders and drastically weaken local influence.

As my colleague Neil O’Brien MP pointed out in his recent article on the same topic, this formula is so skewed it is projecting decreased housing supply in major cities such as Birmingham and Leicester, while prescribing huge increases across much of rural England, particularly in the South. 

In my own constituency of the Cotswolds, the formula would require the district council to plan for more than double the current amount of planned housing. Where will all of that go?

Eighty per cent of the Cotswold district is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). So it would mean that a totally disproportionate amount of development would take place in the 20 per cent that is not designated. 

We have been assured that our greenspaces will be protected, but the proposals do not go far enough in protecting our AONBs.

We have seen in recent years that too often, developers have been able to push through schemes within AONBs on the basis that local authorities have not provided enough shovel ready building land.

The White Paper may be a radical reform in some respects, but the binding local housebuilding targets proposed are likely to worsen existing problems.

The importance of a plan-led system cannot be understated. Good land-use planning is the unsung hero of environmental protection, and local plans are an important way for the public to be involved in shaping the future of the places where they live.

Local authorities are also best placed to identify and help build the affordable homes that local people need. Yet these proposals, rather than helping local authorities to get local plans in places and hold developers to those plans, are a misguided attempt to completely rewrite the rulebook.

There needs to be levelling up of housebuilding in the North and Midlands rather than continuing to concentrate building in the already highly developed South.

Wherever houses are built the welcomed proposed abolition of section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) to be replaced with a flat rate charge.  

However, it must deliver proper infrastructure before or at least during the development of new houses so that existing residents gain from the new development. These changes could speed up the planning system, avoiding protracted arguments over the quantum of section 106 or CIL. 

Finally, there is no use building new homes if they are not affordable, livable or fit for the future. So the mix of houses is equally important as the numbers.

There is flawed thinking that by building far higher numbers of houses in high demand areas, we will somehow level up the whole housing market. All that would happen in important landscape areas like the Cotswolds is that the very special environment would be denied to future generations.

A litany of recent expert reports have shown that design quality has just not been good enough. The Government needs to be much more ambitious when it comes to setting a target for net zero new homes.  

We will not meet our 2050 target whilst our housing stock accounts for about 20 per cent of all our emissions.  So we should start as soon as possible with new builds rather than expensively retrofitting environmental measures in a few years time.  

Equally we will need to tackle some of our older housing stock. My 10 Minute Rule Bill prescribing that all new houses must be full-fibre broadband connected, properly insulated and have an electric charging point goes someway to addressing this. 

The Government’s planning reforms have good intentions, including a desire to boost economic growth, but I feel strongly that ministers are pulling the wrong lever here.

And without a major rethink, the proposals could cause long-term damage to our towns and countryside without delivering the quality, affordable homes we all deserve.

Published in The Telegraph

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The Cotswolds

1. The UK passed the world’s first Climate Change Act over a decade ago with cross-party support. This gave us both a framework to set statutory carbon budgets and set up the independent Committee on Climate Change.

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