There’s no doubt Boris Johnson wants to do something to stimulate housing numbers, for which he deserves some credit. The question of course is whether the recent slew of announcements is likely to survive any longer than most government decisions these days, when U-turns appear to be the order of the day because ministers apparently can’t make up their minds.
Johnson has never been good at making decisions, and this hands-off attitude is beginning to anger his own backbenchers and, frankly, most of his cabinet. On housing, however, we can be grateful that the government does at least appreciate it needs to do better.
The bar is not set high. Over the past decade we’ve seen the disaster that is Help to Buy, which has made several volume-housebuilder CEOs multi-millionaires and has done nothing to increase supply.
Permitted Development Rights were unnecessary across most of the country, where there is little evidence local planners were resisting change when offices had lain empty for years. In London, too often the PDR product has created the HMO slums of the future. Why this ill-conceived notion even survives escapes me.
The changes to SDLT on property over £1m are a major disincentive to moving, impairing managerial mobility at a time when we should encourage it. And now we can add the comprehensive revision of the Use Classes Order, which many developers will welcome but is unlikely to lead to any significant additional housing and will cause as many problems as it solves.
All these no doubt well-intentioned ideas reflect the absence of understanding among ministers of the real impact of change. And given most of them don’t stay in the job long enough to know where the executive washroom is, that may not be surprising.
But wait. Just to prove me wrong, the government has just announced what I have long argued on these pages they would never announce – a wholesale reform of the planning system.
Robert Jenrick, astonishingly still in post despite the Richard Desmond fiasco, has announced a “much simpler and faster“ system based on designating land as either growth, renewal or protected.
In effect, he’s proposing a zoning policy in which once the local planning authority has decided what land is which, the presumption is that in the first two categories permission will be given – provided only that the plans meet building regs and pass a so called “beauty” test. Terrific.
And yet I guarantee that what ends up on the statute book will be markedly different. The “beauty” test, for example, is to be based on locally agreed design codes. This will be a real issue for the volume housebuilders who rely on a fixed number of house types. A shrewd planner might well ensure the local definition of beauty would not quite fit.
Many of us would regard that as a victory, but whether it will produce more housing is of course another matter. Is the idea of only three designations adequate? Does this mean that no applications will be consented in areas designated “protected” – which presumably covers anything remotely close to the green belt? If small housing sites are to be exempt from S106, where does the affordable housing come from?
On housing, the government does at least appreciate it needs to do better
But the strongest reason why I wouldn’t get my hopes up too high is that Johnson’s backbenchers hate the whole idea. That’s not least because their most loyal supporters – the people who actually canvass and put leaflets through doors during elections, who man their committee rooms and raise local funds – are their local councillors.
And about the only power left to a councillor these days – when 83% of an average council’s income comes from central government and is earmarked for a ministerial priority that rarely matches the council’s own – is planning. Touch that, and you’ve just made some very serious enemies. Believe me – I’ve been there, done that and got the XXXL t-shirt.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and This Land
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