Recent planning reforms by this government are nothing else than a power grab, and risk future housing and our response to the climate emergency – writes Councillor Johnson Situ.
It takes something special to unite councils (of all political colours), planning bodies and campaigners in almost uniform condemnation. In recent weeks, MHCLG has reached that feat with a string of announcements and reforms to planning, which as ill-judged as they are impractical. Robert Jenrick has given these proposals lofty names such as ‘Planning for the Future’ or ‘Right to Regenerate’ but scratch beneath the surfaceand this is nothing more than a power grab from a national government intent on deregulating planning at the cost of genuinely affordable homes being built and our ability to respond to the Climate Emergency.
Much has been written about the impact of another top-down reform to the planning system. Firstly, it is important to recognise that the planning system does need reform. Secondly, a decade of cuts to local government has meant that the planning head count has significantly decreased over the years. Yet we must recognise the plan making process can be made far more nimble and better at including communities from the onset if planning departments are adequately resourced.
However, a recent report from the LGA which showed that more than a million homes granted planning permission in the past decade still had not yet been built highlights a wider issue that needs resolving.
Equally, our vision for building high quality, genuinely affordable housing must be coupled with our commitment to tackle the climate emergency – which includes driving up environmental standards in residential homes. That ambition is dependent upon a framework that empowers local authorities to make planning decisions that promote positive environmental and public health outcomes. However, proceeding with the recent announcement risks degrading local authorities’ ability to promote high quality, sustainable housing through the planning system.
So, if the government were interested in planning reforms that supported councils to meet the housing crisis and respond to the climate emergency, here are some things they could announce, and if not, policies the next Labour government should introduce instead:
A build out clause in granted permissions
The Government’s new Right to Regenerate proposals, which seem to amount to privatising public land by stealth, are deeply flawed. Many councils such as Southwark have ambitious council homes building programmes and are using land to build council homes. It is also silent on land banking from developers. Surely, any reforms to planning should enable planning authorities to refuse planning applications based on record of building out permissions?
Enable plan making that is responsive to the local community and changing environment
It is a well-known fact that the current plan making process takes too long, and a running joke that by the time most plans are completed they are up for renewal again. This is particularly concerning for our response to the Climate Emergency and enabling councils to develop the right policies to encourage carbon saving technology at the right time. In recent years we have seen significant strides made in the renewable energy technology and communities have come together to develop co-operative energy organisations, all of which needs a national planning framework that actively supports it.
A report by The Committee on Climate Change in February 2019 calculated that if the current 27,000-50,000 homes built in timber frame in recent years increased to 270,000 annually, this would absorb and store three million tonnes of carbon. Now this will not be the answer to meet the entire housing need, but creating a national planning framework that enabled local authorities to strengthen plans to respond to modern methods of construction, should be a priority.
Local Authorities are ready to go further and in recent times many have already strengthen their requirement for environmentally friendly energy, and increasingly car-free developments are a fixture in more local plans. Here in Southwark, we have committed to a net zero development across our key masterplan area by 2030.
Development in the area will be car free and the promotion of walking and cycling as well as electric buses, taxis and commercial vehicles will help tackle air and noise pollution. We are developing a District Heat Network linking new developments to the South East London Combined heat and Power plant, which will deliver both significant savings in C02 emissions and cheaper energy costs for residents. This will complement a range of low carbon energy options on new build homes across the masterplan area
A spatial planning system, which gives local authorities the ability to have a more formalised say in transport infrastructure
One of the key recommendations from Labour’s Planning Commission was the need for a spatial plan which provided a national framework but also placed a formal role on the local authority. The message of addressing regional inequality will be ignored if local communities get no say on whether their area has better transport infrastructure, and that applies for inner cities as well as northern towns and coastal areas. Whatever your view is on Heathrow’s third runway, it is absurd that the local authority had no formal input within the decision making, when local residents will have to live with the impact on air pollution and traffic in the area.
In short, if this government were serious about meeting the housing crisis and responding to the climate emergency, it would strengthen the role of local authorities within its most recent proposals. Instead it has continued with a decade-long vision to deregulate planning. The stakes are high, and we will need to be bold to build the social and genuinely affordable housing the country needs, as well as responding to the climate emergency. Reheated policies from the 80’s will not work and that is why Southwark Labour, like many Labour authorities, will be fighting these new proposals and campaigning tirelessly to elect a Labour government.