The government's new planning reforms could unleash a new wave of essential green infrastructure or scar the UK with car-dependent suburban sprawl – and it is too early to tell which
Power is planning. And planning is power.
There are few issues more political in the rawest, most tangible sense than the question of who gets to build what, where. Sure, if you get geopolitics wrong you could trigger a nuclear apocalypse, but have you ever tried to get approval for a new wind farm within sight of a golf course? Henry Kissinger would walk away in tears after the fifth committee meeting.
This is the context within which the government's sweeping new planning reforms need to be judged. They are both a raw exercise in power, the likes of which only a confident government with an 80 seat majority would ever embark upon, and a staggeringly high stakes gamble by a government with a decidedly mixed record of translating such gambits into effective and popular governance.
It is worth noting that for all the headlines warning of 21st century slums and environmental destruction, the reforms are not without their merits.
The white paper reiterates the government's support for its imminent Future Homes Standard, which is meant to ensure all new homes are 'zero emission ready' - i.e. gas boiler- and cooker-free - from 2025. It even hints that it could consider pulling forward the introduction of the new standard.
As with so much of the government's economic recovery package, there is also lots of encouraging rhetoric about the need to accelerate the UK's net zero transition, create green jobs, and deliver modern infrastructure and attractive communities right across the UK. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick set out an unequivocal vision this morning, declaring that the reforms would "cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before".
More broadly, there is the argument that reforms to the planning system are needed. It takes years to get approval for even relatively uncontroversial developments at a time when millions of people under 40 are locked out of the housing market and condemned to live in precarious and even unsafe rented accommodation. At the same time, a huge chunk of the housing stock is demonstrably unfit for 21st century purpose: too cold in the winter, too hot in the climate-aggravated summer, and lacking access to modern clean digital infrastructure.
It is for these reasons that some green groups were notably reticent to respond to the new proposals this morning with blanket condemnation. There is a grown-up recognition that the current planning regime can be improved and that changes that could deliver much needed new infrastructure while protecting and enhancing the environment deserve due consideration.
The problem is there is not enough to consider. At 43 pages this is a surprisingly slim document for what is meant to be the biggest shake up of planning rules in over half a century. The government is big on what it wants to axe - an entire layer of the planning process, existing infrastructure and affordable home levies - but much vaguer on the precise detail of the new mechanisms it wants to introduce. A streamlined infrastructure fund to ensure new developments incorporate the schools, roads, playgrounds, and affordable housing that is essential to a community makes sense on paper, but it is the detailed legal conditions that give such assurances value. Similarly, designating some zones as 'growth' areas where approvals are essentially guaranteed should certainly help speed up development, but the same old critical questions of politics and power that define any planning system remain: where will these zones be, how big will they be, who will be allowed to develop, which design codes will be pre-approved, and - crucially given the housing industry's poor track record - how will it all be policed?
The white paper offers some answers, but not nearly enough. On the vital question of more demanding green home standards the response to the consultation on the Future Home Standard will not come until the autumn. Meanwhile, there is no indication more funding will be forthcoming to ensure more stringent standards are honoured. There are numerous horror stories of new build developments that fall well-short of the currently weak standards. Too many developers operate with impunity knowing the inspection regime is under-funded and that even if they are caught out fines are derisory. Councils' planning and inspection teams remain badly understaffed. The government's response to this well documented problem? "As local authorities are freed from many planning obligations through our reforms, they will be able to reassign resources and focus more fully on enforcement." Given councils' chronic budgetary pressures this seems optimistic to say the least.
Jenrick talks of a system that will cut red tape without compromising standards and speed up development without resulting in a free-for-all at inappropriate sites. But on too many fronts these assurances need to be taken on trust - and therein lies a problem.
Jenrick is unveiling reforms that promise to improve the flow of infrastructure funding from developers, after recently conceding that he acted unlawfully to help a developer avoid a bill for new infrastructure. The Conservative government that is now promising to drastically improve green building standards follows a Conservative government that scrapped zero carbon home standards at the behest of a handful of developers. Rishi Sunak's £2bn boost for energy efficiency upgrades is hugely welcome, but there is still no long term strategy for upgrading millions of properties over the next two decades to make them compatible with the UK's net zero goals.
Meanwhile, the leasehold and ground rent scandal rumbles on unabated bringing misery to thousands of families, developers continue to hoard land and planning permissions, and the failure to adequately enforce standards for rental properties remains a national disgrace that leaves far too many people renting from modern day slum landlords. Scores of blocks still have Grenfell-style cladding.
For much of the past decade the dominant model for new housing developments has too often been brownfield site 'executive' flats, commonly built to minimal standards and with exorbitant service charges and ground rents baked in, or edge of town suburban sprawl, again often built at or below code,sometimes with ground rents attached, and with scant regard for the infrastructure that is essential for turning an estate into a community.
Coincidentally, I took a stroll through one such estate last weekend on a visit to family. The part of the development that dates back to the 1980s and early 90s was within 10 to 15 minute walk of a parade of shops, a pub, a church, and a big playing field. Regular buses connected the estate to the town centre a couple of miles away. In contrast, the area built over the past decade had larger houses, but it was also completely car dependent. The nearest shop was a 30 to 40 minute hike away, the local playground was miniscule, some rooftop solar panels were in evidence, but they clearly did not come as standard. A chunk of the site had been planted with mixed woodland, presumably as part of the planning conditions, but welcome as such planting is it will do little to offset the extra emissions created from a development that is the perfect antithesis of the '15 minute neighbourhood' designs that can serve to slash emissions and enhance community ties.
It should be possible to help drive a green recovery through the rapid development of the low carbon infrastructure and modern sustainable homes the UK desperately needs, not to mention the urgent upgrading of existing properties. It should be possible to create modern, beautiful neighbourhoods, boasting clean technologies and all the infrastructure required for people to live fulfilling sustainable lives. But without clear and ambitious planning rules and building standards, as well as highly effective enforcement, we will simply end up with more of the same problems that have characterised the past two decades - only worse. It remains worrying unclear as to whether or not the government has the power and the planning to deliver.