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Planning reforms announced to help us “build, build, build”

The Government has announced plans for the "most radical reforms of our planning system since World War II. But are these reforms what we need right now?

planning reforms

This week the Prime Minister announced plans to overhaul the planning system to make it easier to “build better homes where people want to live”.

The reforms are also aimed at kick-starting the construction industry and creating jobs to “build, build, build” Britain out of a looming post-coronavirus recession.

Reforms mean:

  • developers will no longer have to go through the usual planning application process to demolish and rebuild empty residential and commercial buildings – as long as they are being used for new homes.
  • property owners can convert a wider range of commercial buildings into homes without requiring planning approval for the change of use.
  • property owners will be able to build additional space above their properties without planning permission, subject to neighbour consultation.

Ministers argue that these measures will breathe new life into town centres by quickly creating houses and flats in high streets.

The announcement said that developers will still “need to adhere to high standards and regulations, just without the unnecessary red tape”.  But that was it.

Worryingly, there was no mention of the government’s long-standing commitment to legislate for a New Homes Ombudsman to address poor quality new build and lack of consumer redress when things do go wrong.

We – and many other organisations – have concerns.

Homes yes, but not at the expense of high streets

Commenting on the news this week, Paula Higgins, CEO of HomeOwners Alliance said, “High streets are essential to thriving towns and communities across the UK. Converting unused shops on the outskirts of high streets could well make sense as they naturally contract.’

‘But diluting a high street with lots of residential properties will be the beginning of the end. Once a core of shops is removed, more people will go to out of town shopping centres and shops will have no option but to abandon the high street as well.”

‘We need our local shops now more than ever. When we couldn’t get supermarket slots, it was the local butchers, bakers and grocers that delivered the essentials.”

Paula also questioned the focus on planning reforms as we emerge from lockdown. “Announcing planning reforms now will only act to halt building activity as developers wait to see if the new system suits them better.”

Concerns over quality with change of use

Paula also expressed concern over the quality of conversions. “Reforms that enable the converting a wider range of commercial buildings into homes could lead to poor-quality housing. It’s a real concern that has been flagged up in the past by many housing groups.”

“See for example the extensive experience and accounts from Julia Park, an architect and Head of Housing Research at Levitt Bernstein. She has been campaigning for an end to permitted development rights for office to residential conversions because of the extensive number of homes that fall short of basic standards.”

Building up by two storeys without planning permission

Under reforms residential blocks will also be allowed to extend their developments upwards by two storeys without planning permission from the start of next month.

The Times newspaper today said this was tantamount to a “multi-billion pound planning windfall for freehold investors”.

Campaigners say the policy change will make it harder and costlier for leasehold flat owners to buy their freeholds. This is in spite of a Law Commission report this year to make enfranchisement “easier, simpler and more cost” effective to consumers.

We have been calling for the abolition of leasehold for many years now. In 2017 we reported the true scale and shocking practices in the leasehold property market in our Homes Held Hostage report.

Following that report we have seen Government acknowledgement that the leasehold system is not working in consumer’s best interests and need to be reformed. But proposed reforms have not been comprehensive, slow to materialise and failed to acknowledge the problems faced by existing leaseholders.  Consumers continue to be treated as a steady source of income for freeholders.

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