The government and planning: my annual report

October 28 2020
The government and planning: my annual report

Planning Matters, with Chris Gosling

A YEAR ago in this column, I speculated over what effect the result of the general election would have on planning.

The election turned out to be fought on very simple lines and the result broke the paralysing deadlock in parliament. Boris Johnson was delivered a mandate which turned out also to cover many issues which were nowhere near the headlines during the campaign.

Much has happened since then that has turned lives on their heads, but perhaps this is a good time to mark the government’s report card, under the title of planning at least. One year in, how are they doing?

It didn't take too long for the first scandal to come round. Communities Minister Robert Jenrick made sure that his decision on a planning application for an Isle of Dogs tower block was issued on the day before the developer would have been obliged to pay millions in Community Infrastructure Levy on the development. At around the same time, his party received a donation of £12,000 from that same developer. But as soon as this came to light, the matter was considered to be closed. An inauspicious start.

Driven by coronavirus and under the banner of Build Back Better, the reform of planning was fast-tracked. Some of this has already been delivered, and I have reported on the increased use of permitted development rights and changes to the Use Classes Order. What I didn't mention before was that updating the legislation that requires a fee for notification under some of these rights was overlooked. This left one day in which those who were on the ball could submit applications for an extra two storeys on a house, without even having to pay a fee for it.

It has also transpired that, while you do not necessarily require planning permission to add two storeys to your house, if the existing walls cannot take the additional weight, resolving this by adding buttresses to the outside of the building will require planning permission. What was supposed to be a fast-tracked confirmatory application can turn into two, with the subsequent planning application most likely to be submitted once things have started to go wrong. This will no doubt increase the stress levels for all concerned, as the roof is likely to be off by the stage that the planning application needs to be submitted.

If that was not enough, as a postscript to the new permitted development rights, a ministerial statement has made clear that all new dwellings formed have to comply with the government‘s indicative space standards. This leaves the impression that the policy was not fully thought through initially, as it could have been included in the conditions in the legislation, which was already written to ensure that rooms created would have windows.

The next initiative was the proposed reform to introduce zoning, which I reported on last month.

Time will tell if this will even be accepted by parliament. Housing demand is intended to be determined by an algorithm, despite algorithms having gained something of a tarnished reputation over the summer. Initial indications are that the vast majority of housing will have to be accommodated in the South of the country, which will not go down well in the shires. Meanwhile the room for flexibility in the North of improving infrastructure off the back of housebuilding will be reduced. This looks to be another idea that needs proper objective examination.

I am trying to keep an open mind on the opportunities afforded by these new initiatives. Despite the fact that planning is inherently a complex business, simplification is a worthy intention.

However, lack of detail and last minute tweaks mean that the kindest conclusion I can reach on the past year is: "Must do better."