Ministers unveil long-awaited proposals to streamline planning system, sparking fierce criticism from environmental and housing groups
The government today faced a torrent of criticism from environmental groups, housing campaigners, and architectural bodies, after it published its long awaited whitepaper setting out proposals for the biggest shake-up of the UK's planning regime in decades.
Unveiling the controversial proposals, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted the plans would "lay the foundations for a brighter future, providing more homes for young people and creating better quality neighbourhoods and homes across the country".
"We will cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before," he added. "Planning decisions will be simple and transparent, with local democracy at the heart of the process."
The white paper reiterates the government's plans to strengthen environmental standards for new homes and hints that it could pull forward the 2025 target date for introducing the new Future Homes Standard, which will require new homes to be "zero carbon ready".
"From 2025, we expect new homes to produce 75-80 per cent lower CO2 emissions compared to current levels," the paper states. "These homes will be 'zero carbon ready', with the ability to become fully zero carbon homes over time as the electricity grid decarbonises, without the need for further costly retrofitting work."
It added that the government will respond to the consultation on the Future Homes Standard in the autumn, but highlighted feedback from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and confirmed that Ministers "intend to review the roadmap to the Future Homes Standard to ensure that implementation takes place to the shortest possible timeline".
However, while welcoming the commitment to greener homes, environmental groups highlighted a raft of concerns with the new proposals, voicing fears that new standards are likely to be under-policed and warning that efforts to fast-track planning approvals risk creating new 'slums'.
The reforms are primarily designed to fast-track new developments by establishing pre-approved design codes and requiring councils to assign 'growth', 'renewal', and 'protection' zones. The approach would effectively remove a layer of the planning process, meaning that new homes, hospitals, schools, shops, and offices are automatically allowed in 'growth' zones, while projects in 'renewal' zones would be given 'permission in principle'. 'Protected' zones would mean green belts and areas of outstanding natural beauty would remain protected.
Councils would also face targets to build a certain number of homes, while local housing plans would have to be developed and agreed within 30 months - down from the current average of seven years.
In a bid to assuage concerns about the development of low-quality homes with minimal supporting infrastructure, the white paper also proposes replacing the system of section 106 agreements for affordable homes and the Community Infrastructure Levy with a new Infrastructure Levy to help fund both affordable housing and new roads, upgraded playgrounds, and discounted homes for local, first-time buyers.
The proposals were welcomed by Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the CBI, who said changes to the planning system would "help ramp up the availability of homes in places where people need them most", boost the construction industry, and ensure the delivery of "high-quality, safe and environmentally friendly new homes [that are] critical for meeting our climate targets while accelerating regional growth and tackling inequality".
But such claims were met with scepticism by a coalition of environmental groups and housing charities.
"These planning reforms are bad news for our communities, climate, and local democracy," said Kate Gordon, senior planner at Friends of the Earth. "A robust planning system is essential to deal with the housing, nature and climate crises we face, so we can emerge from the pandemic in a green and fairer way. Weakening the system will only benefit developers because it will mean building where developers can maximise their profit, rather than what communities need. These proposals are a developers' charter that bypasses the democratic wishes of communities and threatens a wave of poorly-built, badly-sited developments."
Green groups also questioned the need for such sweeping reforms, highlighting how 90 per cent of applications are approved by local planning authorities, while there are around a million granted permissions that have not been built. Campaigners maintain that the primary reasons for planning delays include poorly designed proposals from developers, decisions by developers to limit build rates to maximise profit margins, unclear government guidance or its inconsistent application by agencies and authorities, and an acute lack of planning capacity in local authorities.
As such, green groups are calling on government to step up investment in ecological surveys and data, hire more ecologists and environmental planners within local authority planning teams, and impose stronger planning provisions within the Environment Bill to ensure biodiversity gain from all developments and enable Local Nature Recovery Strategies that are capable of influencing planning and spending decisions.
"We need a more modern and strategic approach to planning, based on better environmental information and a digital approach, but these changes must complement existing environmental planning protection, not replace it," said Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link. "The scale of reform proposed by the government could allow unrestrained development across great swathes of our landscape, unless it is properly balanced by site-specific, democratic and transparent protection for nature across the country. We could support changes that improve environmental decision-making, but would fiercely oppose an approach that extends permitted development across large areas without proper protection for our environment."
Campaigners are also calling for the government to step up funding for inspection and enforcement to ensure more demanding green building standards are honoured.
However, the whitepaper indicates only that resources could be reassigned to improve enforcement. "We will want to ensure that high standards for the design, environmental performance and safety of new and refurbished buildings are monitored and enforced," the paper states. "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."
Housing experts also gave the proposals a mixed welcome.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) described the proposals as "shameful", warning they would do "almost nothing to guarantee the delivery of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes".
"While they might help to 'get Britain building' - paired with the extension of permitted development rights last week - there's every chance they could also lead to the development of the next generation of slum housing," said RIBA president Alan Jones.
Housing charity Shelter also warned the proposed removal of the Section 106 agreements that currently fund affordable housing could prove disastrous for social housing projects. "Section 106 agreements between developers and councils are tragically one of the only ways we get social homes built these days, due to a lack of direct government investment," said its chief executive, Polly Neate. "So, it makes no sense to remove this route to genuinely affordable homes without a guaranteed alternative."
However, government sources insisted the reforms were necessary to address the housing shortage that has seen many young people locked out of housing market. They also reiterated that new building standards would enable the development of a new generation of low carbon homes and boost the green building sector in support of the UK's net zero emission goals.
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