Government must not extend powers of ‘cash-for-favours’ minister, says Labour

Labour has called on the government to halt its plans to extend the housebuilding and planning powers of housing minister Robert Jenrick amid the ‘cash-for-favours’ planning scandal.

The demand follows reports that the government is considering handing additional powers for major developments to the Housing Secretary, as well as extending permitted development rights.

Labour has said that such changes would amount to a “land grab” on the planning system, and warned that it could signal a “pulling back” on commitments to making existing homes well-insulated and energy efficient.

According to the Financial Times, Boris Johnson aide Dominic Cummings has privately argued that £9bn promised for a household insulation programme should go to building homes instead.

One source told the paper that Cummings saw the manifesto promise on insulation as “boring” and another source said the Number 10 adviser was sceptical about the 2050 net-zero target.

Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire has today called on the government to focus on high-quality, carbon-zero and truly affordable homes – instead of prioritising “housing developers’ business interests”.

The Shadow Housing Secretary said: “The Westferry scandal shows that for all their fancy language, the Tories are simply prioritising the demands of housing developers at the expense of people who need affordable homes.”

Jenrick granted planning permission for the £1bn development of the Westferry Printworks site in east London, two weeks before applicant Richard Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.

The Housing Secretary later overturned his own decision after admitting “apparent bias”. It has since been confirmed that Jenrick had made the decision swiftly to help the developer avoid a new charge.

Not paying the community infrastructure levy in Tower Hamlets – one of the most deprived areas of the country, with high rates of child poverty – would have saved Desmond between £30m to £50m.

It has also been confirmed that Jenrick overruled his own advisers to reduce the amount of affordable housing in the proposed development, saving the developer and Tory donor a further £106m.

Debbonaire commented: “The arrogance of Robert ‘three-homes’ Jenrick proposing a roll-out of ill-adapted rabbit hutches is staggering – permitted development has been shown to be a failure, and this is just another example of the Tories doing favours for their property developer mates.

“Meanwhile, our climate change targets are urgent, and there are millions of existing homes which need insulation and energy efficiency.

“Instead of thinking about housing developers’ business interests, the government should be focusing on the millions of people who see home ownership as an impossible dream, or the many key workers who have been stuck for years on council housing waiting lists and invest in high-quality, truly affordable homes that are well insulated and energy efficient and help to meet our zero-carbon emissions targets.”

This intervention by Labour comes as the government considers wide-ranging reforms to the planning system. Earlier this month, Jenrick said that he wanted to “rethink planning from first principles”.

In a policy paper published in March this year, the Housing Secretary detailed proposed reforms including trialing US-style zonal planning and extending permitted development rights.

Permitted development rights mean that people can undertake certain works without having to apply for planning consent. They derive from a general permission granted by parliament, rather than a specific one from the local authority.

Such rights allow the developers to bypass the local planning process, so that they are not required to provide any affordable housing. Shelter reports that thousands of affordable homes have been lost as a result.

According to research by the Greater London Authority, of the 15,929 new homes built through permitted development in London between 2013 and 2019, only 71 – or 0.4% – were defined as “affordable”.

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