Planning law changes ‘potentially disastrous’

Council leader sounds alarm over government reform, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Local politicians in Enfield have reacted to a proposed shake-up of the planning system that could see their oversight of applications diminish.

Proposals to streamline planning in the biggest shake-up of the system for decades were published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government earlier this month.

Under the proposals, planning applications based on pre-approved ‘design codes’ in areas earmarked for growth would be given automatic outline permission. Areas designated for ‘renewal’ would see a presumption in favour of some developments.

While residents would have a say in the development of design codes and location of ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ and ‘protection’ areas, the changes could lead to less scrutiny of applications by councillors and members of the public.

There are also plans to lift a minimum threshold at which developers are required to pay Section 106 contributions – used to fund affordable housing – from sites of ten homes to up to 50 homes.

Council leader Nesil Caliskan said: “These proposals to raise the minimum threshold for affordable housing are potentially disastrous for Londoners and could reduce the amount of affordable housing built in the capital.

“London is suffering the most severe homelessness crisis in the country, and the chronic shortage of affordable housing is at the heart of this. It would be a massive step backwards if the government undermined boroughs’ ability to ensure new development in London includes affordable homes.

“We will be sharing our concerns with ministers. Councils certainly need more detailed information and reassurance from the government over how these changes would work.”

Mike Rye, a Conservative councillor and shadow cabinet member for planning, welcomed the three-month consultation on the proposals and the bid to speed up the drafting and implementation of local planning frameworks. But he also criticised changes to permitted development rights that will allow people to add two storeys to existing post-war homes without full planning permission. The changes will also allow developers to knock down unused buildings and replace them with housing without full permission.

Cllr Rye said: “Proposals to allow homes and flats to add two stories without planning permission are unwelcome as this may lead to poor-quality housing, impact negatively on neighbours and the street scene and should be resisted.

“Equally, proposals to allow offices to be replaced by housing without planning permission should be opposed, as this is more likely to lead to poor-quality housing. Such developments are presently considered major developments, as they have a significant impact on immediate neighbours and infrastructure – including, schools, roads, and health provision – and they should be determined by planning committees.

“Present permitted development rights to convert offices to housing have resulted in poor-quality homes with insufficient amenity space inside or outside.

“Social housing should be built to a high standard with good-quality amenity space. Only investment will achieve this, and these proposals will not help achieve this objective. Local elected politicians are in the best position to judge what is right for their area, and this democratic representative role should not be undermined by any changes to planning law.”

Dinah Barry, leader of the Community First group on the council, added: “Permitted development has weakened the planning system fundamentally, so that councils are being forced to put through things they would not otherwise countenance.

“It is not achieving its objectives. It is allowing for some appalling developments to happen that are bad for the people in the area and bad for the people moving into them.

“Anything that reduces accountability cannot be good, and it undermines trust in the government. It is not the public and councillors who are holding things up.”

When the proposed changes were announced, ministers said they would “transform a system that has long been criticised for being too sluggish in providing housing for families, key workers and young people”.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Our complex planning system has been a barrier to building the homes people need; it takes seven years to agree local housing plans and five years just to get a spade in the ground.

“These once-in-a generation reforms will 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. Planning decisions will be simple and transparent, with local democracy at the heart of the process.

“As we face the economic effects of the pandemic, now is the time for decisive action and a clear plan for jobs and growth. Our reforms will create thousands of jobs and lessen the dominance of big builders in the system, providing a major boost for small building companies across the country.”

The government’s ‘Planning for the Future’ consultation is available here: gov.uk/government/consultations/planning-for-the-future