Planning for a better future?

The Planning White Paper, published last week, promises radical reform “unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War” to create “a whole new planning system for England”, a system that will encourage “sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development”. It is perhaps unfortunate, then, that the front cover of “Planning for the Future” shows an aerial view of Tregunnel Hill in Newquay – a new estate plonked down in the middle of the town without any reference to its surroundings, with box-like houses, pitched roofs with no eaves, tiny fenced-in gardens and not a scrap of greenery to be seen. If this is a vision of the future, heaven help us.

But to begin with, there are some positive aspects to the White Paper. For me, any government that wants to “build, build, build” has some merit, although this obviously depends on what is built and where, and whether it is affordable and of a high quality. The government is promising 300,000 homes a year but the danger is that the proposals will churn out Barratt boxes for first time buyers and executive homes, with few affordable homes in the mix.

The government also recognises that small builders have been in terminal decline in recent decades with the proportion of new homebuilding by SMEs dropping from 40% 30 years ago to just 12% today. If the proposals do unleash a new generation of smaller housebuilders, so much the better. But whether this decline is due to “planning red tape”, as claimed, or wider issues such as land prices, skills shortages or finance is debatable.

The proposals to digitise the planning system to make it smarter and more accessible and comprehensible to the layperson (no more notices on lamp posts), with visual plans rather than abstract policies also have some merit. As a member of my local town planning committee I have scrolled through loads of applications and the system is clunky without doubt.

Finally, the proposals to speed up the local plan process (down to 30 months and published plans shortened by two thirds) and to require local authorities both to have a local plan (only 50% do at present) and to enforce housebuilding numbers are to be commended.

But what exactly is the problem with the current system? Boris Johnson’s introduction makes the bold claim that “Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places”. Really? Nothing to do with right to buy or a failure to invest in affordable homes or our dysfunctional land market? A key theme of the paper is that planning takes too long. But an investigation by the BBC fact check unit found that 89% of major applications were decided within 13 weeks, or an agreed time (planning departments and developers may agree an extension to the 13-week time limit). It is true that larger developments take longer, but it seems that planning has become the scapegoat for wider failures (just as the scientists are likely to be blamed for wider Covid-19 failings).

 The two key proposals in the plan are a new zoning system and replacing the Community Infrastructure Levy and section 106 with a new Infrastructure Levy.

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Slums for today and tomorrow

The government’s decision to go ahead with further relaxation of planning rules defies logic and will create a new generation of slums.

I touched on this in my blog in June when I wrote about this government’s obsession with planning red tape. I also suggested that, post-pandemic, there would be opportunities to turn offices into homes, but “not through the disastrous policy of Permitted Development Rights, which has created so many sub-standard homes”.

Now the government has issued new statutory instruments and amendments to the planning rules allowing wider use of Permitted Development Rights (i.e. development without the need for formal planning permission). All of this is part of their aim to streamline the planning system to churn out new homes. The problem is that it seems to contradict entirely their aim of building beautiful homes.

The first change will allow homeowners to add two storeys to houses and detached blocks of flats (one storey for single-storey houses) without the need for planning permission. (Trebles all round for flat freeholders, especially in London). There are some exemptions: they must  have been built between 1948 and 2018, the roof pitch and materials on the new extension must match existing, there must be no side windows, and the new roof must be no more than 3.5 metres higher than adjacent properties.

The second change will also allow purpose-built blocks of offices, flats or business premises to be demolished and replaced with a single purpose-built detached block of flats, or a purpose-built detached house up to two-storeys high, again without the need for planning permission. The existing building must be no more than 1,000 square metres or built after 1990 and must have been vacant for six months. Rooms must also have natural light (but can be single aspect).

This comes on top of existing Permitted Development Rights that allow offices to be converted to residential and shops to be converted to residential (up to 150 square metres) – all without permission.


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You ain’t no Roosevelt, bruv

Ignore the hype. This week’s “Rooseveltian” New Deal is no such thing. The Prime Minister’s “build, build, build” reboot of the economy amounts to no more than £5bn of existing money, and even reduces the budget for social housing, spreading the existing programme over eight years instead of five (although this has been denied by Downing Street).


By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was gargantuan. By 1933, gross domestic product in the US had fallen by nearly a third and unemployment rose from 3% to 25% percent. Between 1933 and 1939, the New Deal injected around £625bn in today’s money into the US economy. It created dozens of new agencies, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built dams and new towns, the Public Works Administration, which built schools and roads, the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought electricity to rural areas, and the Federal Housing Administration, which set new standards for construction and stabilised the housing market to allow millions of Americans to buy their own homes.

The New Deal also funded artists like Diego Rivera to create hundreds of murals in public buildings. One of the prime causes of the US depression was the crash of 5,000 banks. Many had been speculating in shares using customers’ money, so the Glass Steagall Act of 1933 split commercial from investment banks to prevent them from speculating with customer accounts. The banking system was stabilised. The New Deal amounted to around 40% of US GDP by 1939. By contrast, this week’s announcement from Boris Johnson amounts to about 0.2% of the UK’s 2019 GDP. So, Boris Johnson’s £5bn stimulus package is the dampest of damp squibs.

I was in Germany last week where the pubs, restaurants and shops are booming (masks are obligatory). The German stimulus package amounts to over £100bn, amounting to 4% of GDP. You can expect the German economy to bounce back pretty quickly.

It is worth noting that Rishi Sunak is set to spend up to £300bn (OBR figures) on propping up the UK economy during the pandemic, as a result of furlough and other support schemes for closed businesses during what has been (in my view) an unnecessary lockdown.


The planning changes announced this week are also deeply worrying. Yet again, the planning system is being blamed for our failure to invest in housebuilding, a topic I wrote about two weeks ago. In the name of “cutting red tape” Permitted Development Rights (i.e. removing the need for formal planning permission) will be extended to brownfield sites, and will allow extensions, demolitions and conversion of commercial units to residential. This will result in thousands of awful sub-standard properties being churned out and will lead to all kinds of neighbour disputes, something I also wrote about in this report for the Intergenerational Foundation on micro-homes.

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Bad Housing Kills

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed a dirty truth that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. It’s a truth that housing folk are very familiar with, but it has mostly been ignored by government, the media and opinion formers. The truth is this: bad housing kills.

Even before the crisis struck, we knew that the most well-off people lived almost a decade longer than the least well-off. By definition, poorer people are likely to live in poorer housing. But now it is also the poor who are suffering the most from Covid-19.

According to the Office for National Statistics, deprived areas have double the mortality rate of well-off areas and the death rate is six times higher in major cities than in rural areas. BAME people have suffered most of all, with a third of all deaths.


Consider a few facts: up to 17 April in England and Wales, 36 people in 100,000 died from Covid-19. But this hides a vast disparity between rich and poor areas.

In leafy South Hams the death rate was four per 100,000, but London had a death rate 22 times higher with 86 deaths per 100,000, and within London the death rate ranged from 43 in Kingston to 144 per 100,000 in Newham. Why should Newham have over three times as many deaths as Kingston?

There are two likely answers. First, Kingston has 4,700 people per square kilometre, Newham has more than double that at 9,700. The higher the density, the higher the risk of catching coronavirus.

Second, 64% of homes in Kingston are owned and 9.5% are social, whereas in Newham, 42% are owned and almost three times as many are social – 27%. Within London as a whole, almost 15% of social homes are overcrowded compared with just 2.5% of owner-occupied households.

Not surprisingly, the latest available figures show that overcrowding in Newham is almost three times worse than in Kingston – 18% compared with 6.7% respectively.

Of course, other factors are at play. Many poor people in Newham will be working in dangerous occupations, but Cambridge virologist Chris Smith reckons that over 80% of transmission is within the home, so if you bring the virus home in Newham it is more likely that the rest of your household will succumb to it than in Kingston, where people have more space to work and isolate from each other.

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