Boris Johnson set out proposals on Thursday to rewrite the English planning system, which he described as “a relic” that ensured there were “nowhere near enough homes in the right places.”
The radical plans would sweep away core elements of the existing system, replacing them with a US-style model designed to accelerate and simplify the delivery of housing and infrastructure projects.
But the proposals have come under fire, with critics claiming they risk sidelining local councils and clearing a path for poor quality “slum” housing to be developed, while providing no guarantees that more affordable homes will be delivered.
“This is the end of the planning system as we know it, ripping it up and starting again . . . And no one can argue this makes the system more democratic,” said Hugh Ellis, policy director at the Town and Country Planning Association, which campaigns for reform of the planning system.
But Mr Johnson is determined to build 300,000 new homes a year, helping young people on to the housing ladder, driving down rents and repaying the support of former Labour voters who helped him win the 2019 general election with such a convincing majority. Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief aide, has described the current planning system as “appalling”.
Conservative MPs are privately warning that the plans will face a rough ride in parliament, with local Tory councillors expected to be among the most vociferous critics of proposals that will remove some of their planning powers and impose a binding requirement on them to deliver a set number of homes.
One former minister said the Tories used to oppose centrally-imposed housing targets when they were introduced by John Prescott during the last Labour government. “For a Tory government to do it is quite a big thing,” he said.
When Mr Prescott, whose role as deputy prime minister included oversight of housing and local government policy, outlined plans in 2002 which also reduced the power of local councils, senior Conservatives attacked them as “Stalinist”.
The planning reforms will not take place overnight and Mr Johnson could face a protracted Tory revolt in the shires. A consultation will be followed by primary legislation and local councils will then have 30 months to draw up local plans; any big uptick in new housebuilding flowing from the reforms may not happen until after the next election in 2024.
Thanks to coronavirus and the winding down of the Help to Buy scheme, which will end in 2023, housing delivery could actually fall before then, said Neal Hudson, an independent housing market analyst.
At the core of the plans is a dramatic change to how English land is categorised. At the moment, developments are decided on a case-by-case basis, but under the government’s proposals local councils would be obliged to carve up their land into plots to be developed or protected.
On plots designated for development by local councils, proposals which adhere to certain design standards will receive automatic permission.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the communities secretary Robert Jenrick admitted that once a zone had been set as developable, local people would be unable to reject developments.
Mr Jenrick’s efforts to promote the new policy were complicated by his recent involvement in a planning controversy in which he pushed through approval for a £1bn development in London’s Docklands after lobbying by the project’s billionaire backer Richard Desmond.
Mr Jenrick said on Thursday he regretted exchanging texts with the former owner of the Express newspaper group in connection with the project but has always denied that it swayed his decision to grant approval for the development.
The Conservatives have also been criticised by opposition parties for receiving large donations from property developers and construction businesses in the year since Mr Johnson became prime minister.
Stripping local people of their ability to fight individual planning applications is among the most contentious proposals in the government’s consultation, which runs to the end of October.
Councillor James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said that the loss of local control over decisions “would deprive communities of the ability to define the area they live in and know best and risk giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local areas.”
The government has said the reforms will alleviate a housing shortage it blames for high property prices. But councils and industry groups say the idea that the existing planning system is a barrier to building more homes is a myth, and that the proposals risked adding to an affordability crisis.
“Nine in 10 applications are approved by councils with more than a million homes given planning permission over the past decade yet to be built. The system needs to ensure planning permissions are built,” said Mr Jamieson.
The government has set a target of building 300,000 new homes a year by 2025, up from the 241,000 delivered last year, according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
According to MHCLG figures, more than 370,000 homes were granted permission last year, but 130,000 of those were not delivered.
“Housebuilders build homes at the rate they can sell them — there doesn’t appear to be anything in these proposals that breaks that relationship,” said Mr Hudson.