Boris Johnson has today announced a range of proposed measures aimed at shocking the British Economy back into life following the COVID-19 crisis and Brexit uncertainty. These include a repeated commitment to reform the planning system. Amongst specific measures mentioned in the official press release (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-build-build-build) are previously-announced proposals to extend permitted development rights and remove the requirement for planning permission to demolish and rebuild vacant residential and commercial buildings, if they are rebuilt as homes. “Fast Track” measures include quicker approvals for so called “building up” whereby owners can extend additional space above their property.
Successive Governments have decried delays in the planning system and concluded that deregulation is the solution. However, with deregulation comes a host of genuine planning concerns that are painfully apparent in the existing system and which have been exacerbated in recent years. These include low quality and characterless “off-the-peg” building design by unimaginative developers, structurally poor modern buildings, and a rapid turnover in the cycle of build/demolish/rebuild that is a waste of resources and terrible for both the historic and the natural environment. The Government’s measures announced today will do nothing to address these concerns which are voiced continually by residents and communities, yet are ignored by the developers and the politicians. Deregulation is a demonstrable 20-year failure as a planning policy, set to continue it seems for years to come.
If the Government is genuine about radical reforms to build “better homes where people want to live” and greener development, then it should be looking at measures such as extending requirements for planning permission to demolish historic buildings, strengthening support for the regeneration of existing buildings, and reforming the VAT regime which currently enforces a 20% surcharge on refurbishing standing structures but zero-rates new build. If there is a genuine wish to build faster, then Government should be looking at measures to end land-banking and require development already permitted to be undertaken, rather than fast-tracking yet more permissions, unregulated, which then sit gathering dust without being carried out. To actually provide the greener and more pleasant spaces and communities that people desire and which promote long-term economic growth by attracting businesses, we need better regulation, more regulation and more harmonious regulation, with a more conservation-focused rationale. Better and more thoughtful development reduces conflict with communities and promotes cooperation. The current system discourages this, and it seems, sadly, that this may be set to continue.