Our planning system is critical for delivering on some of the most important challenges we face. The urgent need for new homes to address the housing crisis and the urgent need to tackle the climate and ecological emergency, decarbonise our economy and protect and enrich our natural environment.
To meet these challenges, we must have a planning system that establishes a strong vision, sets high standards for design and environmental performance, gives strong protections to the buildings, spaces and landscapes which people value, and actively supports the involvement and engagement of a diverse range of voices in decision-making.
Yet the Tories are not concerned with reforming the planning system so that it can address these urgent challenges. They are applying the usual natural Tory instinct to deregulate, regarding the planning system as red tape to be cut through, rather than as a valuable toolkit which must be further improved to secure genuinely progressive, sustainable planning outcomes, particularly in terms of the provision of new genuinely affordable homes to rent and to buy.
In 2013, the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition government relaxed planning rules to make it possible for empty office or light industrial buildings to be converted into housing without the need for planning permission. This policy resulted in some appalling housing in unsuitable locations, with no amenities, and often not adhering to even the most basic standards of design. A report by University College London, commissioned by the government looked at almost 700 schemes developed under this route and found that only a fifth of them met the Nationally Described Space Standard for new homes, including some examples which had rooms with no windows. These schemes were also exempted from making any contribution to meeting the need for affordable housing, a huge betrayal of so many of my constituents facing desperate housing need.
Instead of reflecting on the extremely concerning findings of the research they published, the Tories are now pursuing further deregulation of the planning system, introducing new Statutory Instruments which will make it possible to extend existing buildings up to two storeys, convert shop units into housing and demolish office or residential buildings and rebuild them to the same footprint, all without the need for planning permission.
These reforms will not deliver genuinely affordable social housing to address the housing crisis. Indeed, they will achieve the exact opposite by significantly reducing the current requirements to provide affordable homes via the planning system. They will not deliver thriving, distinctive town centres and high streets. And they will not deliver low carbon, sustainable development to address the climate emergency and enhance biodiversity. The Tories’ despicable plans are utterly lacking both in expertise and imagination.
These Tory plans allow the height of existing residential buildings to be increased by two storeys and office buildings to be demolished and rebuilt as housing without the need for planning permission and without making any contribution to social housing need. As a consequence, thousands of people will have their amenity compromised, their rights to light and privacy infringed and some of the new housing will be built in entirely unsuitable locations leaving residents without access to even basic amenities.
We will see more Houses of Multiple Occupation, more people forced to live in cramped, poorly insulated, badly designed homes which are not fit for purpose, because the checks on quality and sustainability which should be there in the planning process are being jettisoned.
These plans also allow building owners with shop units to convert them into housing without the need for planning permission. Again, this won’t result in high quality, affordable sustainable homes. It will result in high streets and town centres across the country being undermined by gaps in their retail frontage, reducing further the critical mass of reasons for shoppers to visit and support local businesses.
Our high streets face an unprecedented set of challenges, a perfect storm of the Tories’ disastrous approach to business rates, rising commercial rents, online competition, the threat of a no deal Brexit and coronavirus. High Streets and town centres need the government to show leadership and imagination, to offer meaningful support to enable them to remain the beating hearts of our communities.
The housing crisis will only be addressed when the government chooses to invest in the high quality, genuinely affordable homes we need – not because it gives a free pass to irresponsible developers to build slum quality homes without planning permission. The government should abandon these plans and go back to the drawing board to put the housing crisis, the climate emergency and our communities at the heart of a planning system which is fit for purpose for the urgent challenges we face.