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Thursday, Apr 15, 2021

Now planning permission will be approved by robots: Alarm over radical reforms that will place building burden on rich areas

Boris Johnson admitted some may see the reforms as ‘too much change too fast’. But he insisted that it was important to ‘finally build the homes we all need’ . Under the proposals, ministers will dictate how many homes have to be built

Affluent areas will be forced to build more new homes in a radical shake-up of the planning system that will see computers decide on applications.

Boris Johnson last night admitted the controversial reforms will be seen by some as ‘too much change too fast’ and ‘too much of a break from what has gone before’.

But the Prime Minister insisted it was important to ‘take big, bold steps’ so the country can ‘finally build the homes we all need’.

Under the proposals, ministers will dictate how many homes have to be built each year in local areas, with mandatory figures set by central Government for councils.

A new system for dividing the nationwide annual target of 300,000 homes across the country will see the burden fall most heavily on desirable locations, such as well-to-do market towns.

Local residents and councillors will get to have their say on which bits of land in their area should be designated. But once this is done, they will no longer get to decide on individual applications.

A drive to digitise the planning process will mean that computers are used to judge whether some applications should be approved.

National, local and neighbourhood planning specifications will be inputted so they can ‘automatically screen developments’ to identify if it meets requirements.

‘This will significantly increase clarity for those wishing to bring forward development, enabling automation of more binary considerations and allowing for a greater focus on those areas where there is likely to be greater subjectivity,’ the Government said in a document setting out its reforms.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: ‘We are moving away from notices on lampposts to an interactive and accessible map-based online system – placing planning at the fingertips of people. The planning process will be brought into the 21st century.

‘Communities will be reconnected to a planning process that is supposed to serve them, with residents more engaged over what happens in their areas.’

The decision to publish the proposal during the summer recess will fuel suspicions that ministers fear a revolt from Tory backbenchers whose leafy constituencies are likely to bear the brunt.

Mr Johnson said the overhaul of the ‘outdated and ineffective’ planning system was to give the ‘people of this country the homes we need in the places we want to live at prices we can afford’.

One of the most contentious parts of the new system is likely to be the ‘new nationally determined, binding housing requirement’ for local authorities.

It would involve making sure a greater share of development was in the ‘least affordable places where historic under-supply has been most chronic’.

In what appeared to be a recognition of the battle that will lie ahead over the reforms, which will now be consulted on, Mr Johnson added: ‘Getting homes built is always a controversial business.

‘Any planning application, however modest, almost inevitably attracts objections and I am sure there will be those who say this paper represents too much change too fast, too much of a break from what has gone before. But what we have now simply does not work.’

The reforms yesterday caused unease within Tory ranks, with fears local concerns will be ignored in order to build more quickly.

The Local Government Association’s Conservative chairman James Jamieson said: ‘Any loss of local control over developments would be a concern.’

Cotswolds MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the backbench 1922 committee, said: ‘Whilst I’m all in favour of building more houses, they need to be good quality houses. We have got to be really sure that we are not building slums of tomorrow by building today at low quality.’

GEOFFREY LEAN: Free-for-all plans that will build a revolt in the shires

By Geoffrey Lean for The Daily Mail

More than 200 summers have passed since William Blake extolled England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ and – as successive governments have found to their cost – there are few things that its people are more determined to protect.

Any attempt to promote the interests of development – and wealthy developers – above those of the countryside, its residents and visitors, has protesters reaching for their spears and ‘bows of burning gold’, or at least their placards.

That, I fear, is about to happen again, following yesterday’s announcement – which I predicted in these pages five weeks ago – that ministers will take an axe to the planning system, depriving residents of much of their say, to give ‘a major boost’ to construction firms.

Already opposition is rapidly mounting – and not just from the usual suspects, environmentalists and planners.

Leading developers may be predictably delighted, but many planning consultants and lawyers who advise them have voiced disquiet.

So too have architects (who have no great love for restrictive planners), homelessness campaigners (whose aim is normally to get more houses built) and even one of the most senior Conservative MPs.

The continued (and to date successful) preservation of the beauty of this small, crowded country since Blake – inspired by the Sussex countryside – wrote Jerusalem is certainly worth defending.

Not for us the sprawling concrete and heedless urban expansion that has so disfigured the United States and other countries.

That is due to deliberate policy, stemming from how both Conservative and Labour governments set up and developed the planning system after the Second World War.

Yet, as it nears its 75th anniversary, the system is showing its age. It is often slow, at times downright sclerotic.

Meanwhile, the country is sinking ever deeper into a housing crisis with millions of young adults unable to afford a home.

‘Boris the Builder’ Johnson is determined to construct hundreds of thousands of new homes and kickstart the economy in the process.

They are both admirable aims and are desperately needed.

But I fear he’s launched a free-for-all for greedy developers – deeply alienating his core voters.

At present, elected councils draw up ‘local plans’ and then decide whether or not to give planning permission. At each stage the public has a say.

Now the Government wants to replace this with a US-style ‘zoning system’, where councils decide what areas can be developed, but have no say over what is built.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insists it will have local democracy ‘at its heart’. But, in fact, two opportunities for democratic participation will be cut to one.

Once the zones have been decided – often many years before specific proposals come forward – that will be the end of it. Indeed, so dehumanised will the process become that some decisions will be taken by computer.

In practice there will be three zones. The first – what Mr Jenrick calls ‘the places, views and landscapes we cherish most’ – will be protected against development.

In a second, ‘designated for growth’, developers will be ‘automatically’ allowed to build without any need to seek approval.

In the third, they will be given permission to build ‘in principle’ while checks, such as on the design, are carried out.

The scheme broadly follows a report, published by the think-tank Policy Exchange earlier this year, which speaks of the ‘rights’ of developers and landowners, while condemning local resistance as ‘the noisy minority’.

Mr Jenrick says the proposals will reduce red tape, speed up planning, result in more and cheaper houses, improve quality and design, and place planning at local people’s ‘fingertips’.

Objectors retort that they are being shown the back of his hand, while developers – who, it is calculated, have given over £11million to the Tories since Boris Johnson took office – get everything they desire.

That’s not to say it is all bad news. By law, all new streets will have to be lined with trees.

Mr Jenrick says Green Belts – which are under unprecedented threat – will be protected, and there will be more building on previously developed, ‘brownfield’ land.

As a Green Belt resident myself, who has campaigned for these supposedly protected areas both before and while living in one, I should welcome the new plans.

But I fear that they come with a high risk of unattractive, unrestrained, unregulated developments elsewhere, and that they will not achieve their aims.

More to the point, I believe millions of people will come to the same conclusion, causing widespread revolt.

Yes, the planning system needed improvement, but it is not the overarching problem ministers make it out to be. Nine out of ten applications for planning permission are granted.

The real drag on development is not the planning system but the developers.

They are sitting on sites, with planning permission, for a million homes – while they benefit from rising land values. When they do build, they do so slowly, so as not to bring prices down.

So if Boris really wants to build Jerusalem, he should focus on today’s equivalent of the mill owners – and let England’s ‘pleasant pastures’ remain just that.


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