Let the proles live in and eat siht
The Tories’ planning overhaul is a ferocious attack on democracy Laurie Macfarlane
Just over a month ago Boris Johnson promised to deliver the most radical reforms to England’s planning system “since the second world war”. This week we found out what that means in practice, and it’s clear the prime minister wasn’t joking.
In a new white paper the government has set out sweeping plans to “cut red tape, overhaul the planning process and build better, greener homes faster”. But even by the standards of the modern Conservative party, this is no ordinary regulatory bonfire. In one fell swoop, the entire system that has governed land use in England for more than 70 years has been set ablaze.
[W]hy is Boris Johnson’s government really dismantling the planning system? As ever, it helps to follow the money.
As openDemocracy has revealed, the Conservative party has received £11m in donations from individuals and companies linked to the property sector since Johnson became prime minister. These donors are no doubt expecting a return on their investment. Robert Jenrick’s cosy relationship with Richard Desmond may may not be the last scandal to catch the limelight.
From the opening sentence to the final full stop, the government’s white paper emits a strong stench of corporate lobbying, and represents a slap in the face to evidence-based policymaking. At best the reforms represent an ideological crusade to undermine local authorities and hand over more power to private developers. At worst, they are part of a coordinated attempt to undermine English democracy. Either way, they must be resisted every step of the way.
The biggest shake-up of planning for decades has caused fury that moves to fast-track the construction of “beautiful” homes across England will “dilute” democratic oversight, choke off affordable housing and lead to the creation of “slum” dwellings.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) described the proposals as “shameful” and said they would do “almost nothing to guarantee the delivery of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes”. “While they might help to ‘get Britain building’ – paired with the extension of permitted development rights last week – there’s every chance they could also lead to the development of the next generation of slum housing,” said RIBA president Alan Jones.
The Conservative government has a known mistrust of experts, but rarely do ministers fly in the face of their own commissioned research as starkly as the housing secretary did this week. On the very same day that Robert Jenrick triumphantly extended permitted development rights (PDR), allowing a range of building types to be converted into housing without planning permission, his own ministry published a report condemning the same rules for leading to “worse quality” homes.
After studying hundreds of new homes carved out from converted offices, shops, warehouses and industrial buildings, created between 2015 and 2018 through permitted development, a team of academics from University College London and the University of Liverpool found predictably grim results. The planning loophole had unleashed a new breed of tiny, dingy apartments, many barely fit for human habitation, with rooms accessed from long corridors, windows looking across internal atriums into other people’s rooms, and some bedrooms with no windows at all.
Julia Park, head of housing research at architects Levitt Bernstein, says developers are taking advantage of the lack of controls to build flats in basements for which they would not have received permission in the past. “Daylight and space are the two most obvious victims of permitted development rights,” she says. “I can’t imagine that any planning authority would allow either a conversion or a new home to go ahead without a window to each habitable room or at least a roof light.”
Lack of natural light can have serious implications for those living below ground. The government’s housing health rating system, which determines the standards demanded by housing officers, warns inadequate natural light poses a threat to physical and mental health. Sunlight is also known to boost vitamin D, which helps prevent bone loss and reduces the likelihood of various diseases.
For experienced planners, windowless flats are anathema. Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), says the window-free flats in Reliance House should never have been built: “Dwellings of any kind without natural light should not be allowed under any circumstances.”