planning committee
Councillors, researchers and campaigners are united in their criticism of new government plans that will see planning powers taken away from local authorities.

The government’s plans to overhaul the planning system in England has been met with fierce criticism from politicians, researchers, and campaigners in Manchester. While Boris Johnson says the changes will make it quicker to build new homes, critics argue the overhaul favours developers over residents, undermines local democracy, and ultimately will not solve the housing crisis.

Under the new zonal system, land will be classified as either “growth”, “renewal”, or “protection”. Growth zones will be defined by “design codes”, with developers given automatic planning permission if their plans meet the codes. Renewal zones, such as brownfield sites, will be subject to a few checks, while protected zones will ensure the green belt is left untouched. Residents will have the opportunity to feed into decisions about the design codes but it’s unclear how often those codes will be reviewed.

In contrast, the current system, which has been in place since 1947, is discretionary with developments assessed on a case-by-case basis against a local plan. Residents feed into the local plan and have an opportunity to object to each proposed development, which goes before the planning committee of elected councillors.

Because local plans can take up to seven years to produce, and discretionary decision-making can be time-consuming, the government says the new system will cut the red tape that makes house building slow.

But for months critics have been warning there’s no evidence the planning system is responsible for slow house building. According to the Local Government Association (LGA), one million homes given the green light in the past 10 years have not yet been built. They say stripping councils of planning powers isn’t the answer to housing shortages.

Peter Apps of Inside Housing has pointed out a Conservative Party report from 18 months ago argued homogeneity of tenure, not the planning system, was responsible for slow build out. Apps summarised: “If you try to put 100% market sale on a large site, the developer can only release them at the pace the market allows ie, the absorption rate.”

Councillor Joan Davis for Deansgate has been a Manchester city centre councillor for over eight years. She says the planning system isn’t responsible for slow housebuilding in Manchester.

“I’ve seen thousands of new homes built and under construction, but I’m also aware of thousands which have been given planning permission but have not been built. Developers have land-banked, or failed to gain the final financing deal, or decided to build office space instead. Blaming the planning system for failure to build homes in the city centre is simply inaccurate, though probably convenient for a government which wants to undermine the planning system in favour of quick profits.

“Post-war housing experience tells us how complex housing provision is. Cutting controls isn’t the answer. The housing crisis needs high standards at volume. Essential components are government permission and funding for social housing, everywhere, and provision of a range of homes available at affordable rents or suitable for first time buyers.”

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Cllr Davis’ concerns that the government want to undermine the system in favour of quick profits is shared by Councillor Jon-Connor Lyons for Piccadilly who says:

“The Planning proposals set out by the Conservative Government are an absolute sham. These plans will sideline local residents and their local representatives in favour of the demands of developers who’ve been cosying up to the Tories and donating vast amounts of money to their party.”

An openDemocracy investigation found the Conservatives have received more than £11m from property tycoons since Boris Johnson took office. Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, was recently in the spotlight for overruling civil servants and pushing through a £1 billion housing plan backed by Tory donor Richard Desmond one day before tax rules changed and Desmond would have had to pay an additional £30-50 million to London’s poorest borough. Jenrick has since admitted his actions were unlawful.

Cllr Lyons, who sits on the planning committee along with Cllr Davis, says the changes will make it harder for citizen voices to be heard.

“I stood for election in 2018 on the basis that I’d be a city centre voice on the planning committee so I could bring forward the perspective that me and my residents share on affordable housing, green space and trees, heritage and density and I’ve been raising those concerns at every planning committee.

“The Conservatives stood for election in 2019 based on a manifesto that pledged to ‘give councils greater powers within the planning system’ [page 19, 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto] and these proposals do exactly the opposite. The planning process needs reform and I know many people are frustrated, both those who object to applications and those who propose them, but these proposals only seek to make the process easier for applicants rather than local residents and local councillors.”  

Jack Hunter is a Research Fellow at thinktank IPPR North, specialising in local governance. Like Cllr Lyons he says the government seems to be backtracking on earlier promises to give councils more powers:

“When this government got into power there was a rhetoric about devolution and busting open White Hall, but every opportunity they’ve had they’ve centralised decisions.” The new planning laws Hunter says, “is emblematic of a culture where government ministers think they know best. They think they know how to run the country and they should be the only ones to have the power and authority to dictate what’s going on.”

The consequences of this mindset can be disastrous, Hunter says, pointing to the government’s centralised approach to track and trace. “Westminster is trying to run everything from an office in White Hall and basically they can’t do it. Track and trace has been a nightmare.” In the past few days local authorities have started launching their own track and trace systems to plug holes in the government system, with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham emphasising the need for a local approach.

Hunter says other countries such as Germany, France, and Spain have a better balance of powers. “Public services are better because you have far greater powers at the local level. You have more local politicians with real power who can make the decisions that are best for their local area.”

Last week the planning committee met for the first time since March when planning powers were delegated to the councils planning executive Joanne Rooney supported by two other councillors. Failure to reinstate the committee sooner drew sharp criticism, as covered by the Meteor, and raised questions about how democratic the current system is.

Manchester-based campaigners have also been quick to criticise the governments plans with Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) tweeting:

Developers are currently obligated to make s106 contributions towards affordable housing, parks, playgrounds, etc. although they can get out of them by claiming such contributions will make the scheme financially unviable. The new plans will see these contributions scrapped in favour of an infrastructure levy that will be a fixed proportion of the value of the development. However, as a Guardian article pointed out, there’s no guarantee developers won’t negotiate down this levy as they often do now. The plans also involve exempting s106 contributions from small sites to help developers “bounce back” from the pandemic.

Campaigners question what kind of housing the planning changes will produce and whether it’s the housing needed to solve the housing crisis.

Beth Redmond from Tenant’s Union told Sky News: “The housing crisis is only going to be fixed by mass council house building… Even ‘affordable’ means 80% of market rent – that’s not affordable.”

The government’s 12 week consultation on the new planning laws runs until 29 October.

By Andrea Sandor

Feature image: Wikipedia Commons

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  • Andrea Sandor

    Andrea is an American-Hungarian who grew up in the United States and is now based in Manchester. She writes about development, environment, active travel and civic participation, among other subjects.

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