The government has missed a golden opportunity to end the housing crisis

Mike Amesbury

The government’s proposed revolution of our planning system will take away the voice of local communities, create hollowed-out high streets, and won’t even begin to address the fundamental problems that have led to our national housing crisis.

While the challenges of the post-Covid economy have brought into sharp focus the need to stoke the furnace by investing in construction and infrastructure, the government’s measures do not address the desperate need to right the wrongs faced by so many in our communities – particularly the acute need for genuinely affordable and good-quality housing.

When we stood and clapped for carers each Thursday, what was a dark time for our country offered at least the slightest glimmer of hope that there would be no return to the least desirable aspects of the old normal. Perhaps now, our real key workers – our health professionals, hospital porters, care home staff and all the countless other professions that faced this crisis head-on – would be truly valued.

In the Labour Party, we urged the government to build back better and greener, and to take this opportunity for investment to create genuinely affordable housing and needed infrastructure. But unfortunately, and somewhat predictably, this government has given us nothing of the sort.

Far from building back better, these proposed planning reforms will take control away from local communities. They would also remove obligations, through Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), for developers to fund the affordable housing and infrastructure that we so desperately need – a system that captured over £7bn of funds in 2018/19.

The cheerleader for these reforms, Robert Jenrick, perceives this vital funding as ‘red tape’, riding roughshod over Tower Hamlets Council, making an unlawful planning direction while saving a Tory donor and developer millions by escaping the CIL obligations. Rather than learning from this scandal, this attack on local democracy is being driven by the very man who should no longer be in post.

The replacement of these obligations, a nationally set levy, will increase the threshold at which it applies, from ten to 50 unit developments. Many developers will therefore be free from this public-good levy. And the replacement levy will not be payable until buildout, creating even further cashflow problems for hard-pressed councils.

The government is also taking forward a radical extension of permitted development rights, which will lead to poor-quality housing and hollowed-out high streets. The government-commissioned report published at the end of July confirmed that only 22% of permitted development homes meet national space standards. Rabbit hutches are coming to a village, town or city near you.

A zonal planning approach will take away the voice of our communities and their elected representatives on local planning committees. It risks creating a free-for-all where chummy developers carve up our towns, creating further segregation with no regard to the wants or needs of the people who live there.

The government frames this as ‘removing red tape’, but it’s simply wrong to paint planning departments as a barrier to housebuilding. In fact, 90% of applications are approved – and over a million homes given approval in the last ten years haven’t been built.

The government has missed a golden opportunity here to take considerable steps to end a housing crisis that has blighted our country for years. It has instead chosen to help create a system where projects of dubious quality, which offer no solutions to any of our problems, can spring up left and right – with councils and communities powerless to stop them, and where the only real beneficiaries are wealthy developers.

Good planning needs to be properly resourced and community-led via maximising engagement in creating a vision and informed plan for localities. A partnership that creates a better place with good sustainable housing and infrastructure – this is the premise of our argument in the forthcoming debates.

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