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In London, there are already planning permissions for over 260,000 homes that are not getting built
Friday’s announcement on planning changes was billed as a bold move to get house building going in the capital and across the country.
A quick look at the details, however, reveals that the proposals are little more than a rehash of old policies that tinker at the edge of what we need.
There will be a new zonal system, which will effectively give automatic planning permission on suitable brownfield sites. In London we have had housing zones opening up brownfield land for over a year – they are nothing new.
The key difference though, is that in London the mayor has to work collaboratively with boroughs, something which is working relatively well thus far.
By contrast, the new proposals take planning decisions entirely out of the hands of local authorities, depriving them of any means to provide checks on quality and design. Most importantly, locking out local authorities could block them from forcing developers to include higher levels of affordable housing on brownfield sites.
Other changes are meant to make it easier to get planning permission. There will be a fast-track process and councils which fail to decide half of all applications in a set time could find decisions taken out of their hands and made instead by central government.
It all sounds like the death knell for the government’s half-hearted commitment to localism.
In a further blow for councils in London, the mayor will now be able to call in any application with 50 homes or more. This should be a great worry, given the mayor’s record of nodding through developments with far lower affordable housing levels than the council were pushing for.
Most recently we’ve actually seen developers pro-actively lobbying the mayor to step in and lower their affordable housing obligations – something he’s been only too happy to do.
For those who already own their homes, Friday’s announcement also included steps to allow them to build upwards – adding extra storeys to the height of a neighbouring building without the need for planning permission.
Cue a rush from developers to find buildings next to tall properties which they can upscale.
All of this is designed to increase planning permissions. But planning permission isn’t the issue – the issue is actually getting those homes built. In London, there are already planning permissions for over 260,000 homes that are not getting built.
In his speech announcing the changes Sajid Javid admitted the ‘UK has long been incapable of building enough homes to keep up with growing demand’.
He’s right – but planning permissions aren’t homes. Permissions must be supported with financing from government, particularly on brownfield sites that require significant decontamination to be habitable.
If the chancellor was serious about tackling London’s housing crisis he would reverse his deep cuts to affordable house building grants, lift the borrowing cap that is preventing councils from building and stop developers pushing the value up by sitting on land for years without building
Without those real reforms, the government’s tinkering will be little more than a pathetic fig leaf for their shameful refusal to face up to the challenge of tackling Britain’s acute and growing housing crisis.