As I write this we now know we have new government led by Boris Johnson with a large majority and a mandate to get “things done”. So what should it do to improve the planning system?

Carl Dyer

As I write this we now know we have new government led by Boris Johnson with a large majority and a mandate to get “things done”. So what should it do to improve the planning system?

First, it’s crucial that our new leader forgets all that was said on the campaign trail vilifying housebuilders. Housebuilders build houses, and we need them. We also need them to train a lot more people to replace their ageing workforce if the new government is to get close to its campaign housebuilding goals. And people are less likely to want to join the housebuilding industry if the PM is still demonising it for “land banking” more than a year after Sir Oliver Letwin’s carefully researched report made it clear that they weren’t.

Second, let’s please have a housing minister who both understands the housing industry and is appointed for the full four or five years of this parliament. There have been 18 housing ministers in less than 20 years since 2000. Their average tenure has been shorter than the training contract in almost any professional activity. Let’s have someone who wants to do the job, not sign the visitor’s book. 

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

Source: Shutterstock/Michael Tubi

Third, the widening of permitted development rights (PDR) to allow conversions of office and other buildings has been a success. In the year to November 2019, conversions accounted for nearly one in eight new homes. These were provided quickly and relatively cheaply reusing existing buildings that were mostly in sustainable urban locations. So let’s keep the PDR that we have and widen them in every way that we can. We don’t have the housebuilding (or brick-making) capacity to deliver either party’s manifesto promises, but conversions can deliver more homes from fewer resources and cheaply. 

Next, scrap the community infrastructure levy. We have record employment levels and near-record-low unemployment levels. We don’t need an expensive job creation scheme for lawyers and surveyors. Especially not one that takes money out of the economy, only for it often to sit unused in local authority bank accounts while they save up for the big-ticket projects that they cannot yet afford. 

For an easy win, add large housing schemes to the list of nationally significant infrastructure projects and try to de-politicise them. For two more easy wins, exempt care homes and retirement housing from affordable housing levies and scrap the C2/C3 distinction. The population is ageing. Demand for downsizing will soar so long as there is stock for people to move to. And every retiree who moves to a usually densely built and urban flat or care home frees up a home elsewhere without the need to build on greenfield land. Better retirement buildings also mean older people are better cared for, which takes pressure off the NHS.

So what’s not to like? It might even help the new PM get re-elected in five years’ time.

Carl Dyer, property lawyer, Irwin Mitchell