Planning has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last two weeks, shining a spotlight on the lack of transparency, the influence of vested interests, and the undermining of local decision-making.
As the new Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning it is my job to hold the government to account, to scrutinise and challenge their work. I’m not here to oppose for opposition’s sake, but to try and push the government into the right place, especially in this current Covid-19 crisis. However, if the process of opposition exposes something fundamentally wrong, then the gloves come off. Fair play is a fundamental British value and we cannot have one rule for a privileged few and another for everyone else. The Jenrick affair, coming hot on the heels of the Cummings scandal, is a classic case of “do as I say not as I do”.
The facts are clear. The Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick gave the go-ahead to a contentious redevelopment project in the Isle of Dogs just weeks after he sat next to Richard Desmond, the developer behind the scheme, at a Conservative party fundraising dinner just before the December General Election. Mr Jenrick has admitted that the application was a topic of conversation that night.
In January, the Housing Secretary approved the planning application for the redevelopment of Westferry Printworks in London’s Docklands, despite advice from his department’s Planning Inspectorate and Tower Hamlets Council that the proposals did not contain sufficient affordable housing. The decision by Mr Jenrick to approve the planning application by Northern & Shell on January 14 came just one day before an increase in the Community Infrastructure Levy was due to be imposed by the council at a cost of £40m to Mr Desmond’s company.
Is the timeline of these events merely a coincidence? Because of Mr Jenrick’s refusal to provide Ministry documents about his decision, we don’t know the answer. It’s vital that papers on Mr Jenrick’s decision-making are now made public. The public need to know that government Ministers are not abusing their power to do favours for billionaire friends and Tory Party donors. Mr Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, the former owner of the Daily Express and Daily Star newspapers, gave the Tory party £10,000 in 2017.
In an astonishing development, after being taken to court by the local authority, Mr Jenrick accepted that his approval of Northern & Shell’s planning application for the Westferry Printworks was unlawful. In March, Tower Hamlets took legal action against Mr Jenrick’s decision, arguing that the timing of his decision appeared to show bias towards Mr Desmond. Indeed, the former leader of the Conservative Group in Tower Hamlets resigned from the party over the affair.
After the court ordered Mr Jenrick’s department to release the documents, the housing secretary accepted his approval of Northern & Shell’s planning application had been “unlawful by reason of apparent bias” – an act which allowed him to avoid disclosing documents surrounding his decision.
This is not acceptable, and certainly not the end of the matter. Not only has the Secretary of State acted unlawfully but he has contradicted the Nolan Principles and further eroded trust in the planning process. I have now written to the Cabinet Secretary requesting that he investigate this matter.
I await a response.
Mike Amesbury is the Member of Parliament for Weaver Vale in Cheshire. He was first elected in June 2017 and is currently the Shadow Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The UK has entered and will leave this pandemic while experiencing a decades-long housing shortage. The country will soon begin to repair the harm done to the economy and society by this disease, but it cannot continue to afford this housing crisis. The inequality it fuels and the damage it causes to national and local economies are too great to bear. We cannot go back to how things were before.
At its core, ending the housing shortage requires more homes. But where new homes are built matters. Yet at present, not enough houses are built in some cities, and arguably too many are built in others. This mismatch emerges as the design of the planning system means it rations the supply of land available for new homes. Ending the housing crisis will therefore require reform of the green belt and a new, flexible zoning planning system to build enough new homes.
So solving the housing crisis therefore requires a focus on the most expensive cities with the worst affordability problems. But currently, as Fig. 1 below shows, there is no link between cities’ demand for housing and their supply of new homes. Many expensive cities including Oxford and Bournemouth are building far fewer homes than those which are more affordable such as Wakefield or Telford. The supply and demand of new homes have been disconnected.
The planning system disconnects local housing supply from local demand
This decoupling of supply from demand originates in the planning system, as the amount of land it makes available for housing is rationed. Development of new homes normally cannot proceed unless the council decides at their discretion to grant a planning permission to a site. Measures such as the green belt block new homes across large areas of land adjacent to many cities and railway stations, including Bristol, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, and London.
The rationing of land, not prices or affordability or need, ultimately decides how many houses cities build. It explains why some cities which have low demand build more than the average city, and far more than some very unaffordable cities.
The planning system prevents redevelopment in large parts of the existing suburbs
The planning system’s rationing of land can be seen in how it warps the supply of new homes within cities. Consider Exeter, an expensive city which is building lots of new homes above the average rate for cities, in Fig.2 below. A substantial number of homes have been built in the city centre (8 per cent growth since 2011), and there is a cluster of new homes being built on the eastern outskirts of the city, including near the brand new railway station of Newcourt.
This national pattern across cities emerges from the design of the planning system. As the supply of new homes is controlled by the discretionary granting of planning permissions by elected councillors, it is both uncertain for developers to navigate and sensitive to political pressure from anti-housing activists. The result is that as so much of the suburbs and unremarkable green belt land are off-limits to new homes, new housing supply is forced into easy-to-develop pockets on the outskirts of cities, and pressure for redevelopment is put on city centres and locations such as social housing estates and offices into flats.
Local shortages which emerge from the planning system make inequality worse within and between cities
By stunting the supply of housing in expensive cities, the planning system creates two different inequalities.
First, it drives inequality in housing costs within prosperous cities between renters and homeowners. As rents rise due to the shortage of homes, so does the wealth of homeowning neighbours as through their housing equity.
More building by councils and housing associations can play a large role here. However, the root cause of the housing crisis lies not in a specific lack of social housing but in the institutional design of the planning system. For instance, England still has one of the largest social housing sectors in Europe, at 17 per cent of all housing stock, yet it also has one of the continent’s most dire housing crises.
Ultimately, the design of the planning system must change. Building more homes in the most expensive cities will require a shift from its discretionary model towards a flexible zoning system, as in Japan and certain US cities.
This approach, where planning permission legally must be granted if a proposal complies with a national zoning code and national building regulations to ensure the structures are safe, is compatible with more social and council housing. But it would fix the institutional problems the private sector faces by reconnecting local supply to local demand, and end the housing crisis by building more homes in the least affordable places with the greatest need.
Anthony has also worked on research on commercial property in cities, services exports, productivity, and manufacturing. He also has a particular interest in lessons for planning, housing, and UK cities from Japan and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Previously he worked at the Fawcett Society as a Research Officer.
The National Planning Policy Framework, the final version of which was published – and comes into effect – today, is good at polarising opinion. As someone who thinks we haven’t built enough homes for a generation, under Governments of both Parties, the apparent determination to build more houses is appealing. A small part of me admires Planning Minister Greg Clark’s willingness to take on some traditional Tory interests in his attempt to do so.
The letters page in the Daily telegraph is not a place I go often. But in the last week or two, since the paper launched its ‘Hands off our land’ campaign, the correspondents have reflected the mood of insurrection in the shires.
The Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework is the cause of the deep rift in the Conservative Party. Two great Tory traditions have collided – conservation of the countryside versus making lots of money from development.
The government has dug this deep hole for itself and Pickles/Shapps/Clark and co deserve no sympathy for their plight. When they came to power they made constant attacks on Labour’s national targets, its regional planning approach and regional plans, which in my view had quite carefully balanced the need to build homes with the need to protect heritage and beautiful places.
At that time the Tory talk reflected the extreme version of localism, where local people would dictate what would get built and where, with just a few incentives, like the New Homes Bonus, to encourage them to build. It felt like a nimby charter and that the net result would be very little development. Indeed, some councils reduced their development targets massively and a few declared what was a virtual moratorium on new homes, especially new affordable homes.
It’s not clear when the penny dropped and the government realised that its approach was incompatible with building more homes. This realisation was encouraged by some developers who increasingly, according to the Telegraph and others, fill the Tory Party’s coffers with rather more than pennies. Anyway, they now seem to have swung right round to the opposite extreme. There are accusations that government inspectors are ‘pressurising’ district councils into changing their core strategies to get more homes built. The Telegraph says that they have ‘identified a number of rural councils which have been instructed to make changes to their core strategies by planning inspectors that will see them giving up countryside for development. The rulings have created deep tensions at some key Tory run councils with many councillors feeling frustrated at the centralised
For the anti-development lobby, the NPPF is wholly unacceptable because it says that planning must not act as an impediment to growth (i.e. development) and that there will be a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development. Those that genuinely believed in localism, and thought this government would be the conservationists’ friend, feel betrayed and outraged at this new centralised imposition.
Although there is little doubt that the planning system could be streamlined and some of the fussier rules removed, Labour’s structure for planning is beginning to look like a well-oiled machine: national assessments of how many homes are needed, some strict central policy guidance like the target for building on brownfield land and protecting the green belt, a regional assessment of land capacity and the setting of targets for each area,
balanced by local influence over sites and specific developments.
The excellent Highbury Group on housing delivery has submitted comments on the government’s plans which seem to be the height of common sense. They argue that the planning system needs to be plan-led and not led by desires of developers or even the general needs of the economy. Plans need to be evidence-based, taking full account of demography, geography and the natural resources available. They point out that sustainability is a subjective consideration and not a market phenomenon, and should be contextualised by the preparation of a proper hierarchy of national, regional and local plans.
Most studies of the capacity of areas to support housebuilding find more developable brownfield land than was previously believed, although that land is often harder to assemble into good prepared sites than the greenfield option. Some greenfield (NB not Green Belt) land will be required but not so much that it will concrete over the countryside – far from it. With imagination and determination, the development planning process can deliver the homes we need without ruining the countryside and the natural heritage.
The truth is that Labour was right all along, or at least a lot less wrong than the Tories, and the Party should be taking this opportunity to say so to the 3.8m members of the National Trust, the 1m members of the RSPB, and the 600,000 members of the Woodland Trust.
As the National Trust says: ‘Webelieve strongly that any development must meet the needs of people, the environment as well as the economy. The Government has failed to do this in its reforms. It has put short term financial gain ahead of everything else. It has failed to protect the everyday places that communities love. Power in planning goes to the powerful.’ Spot on.