This week I voted in the House of Commons to block the Government’s proposed planning reforms. The reforms were included in the Queen’s Speech, which confirmed that the Government was determined to remove elements of local people’s rights in the planning process. As well as reducing communities’ voices in planning decisions, these pernicious reforms would endanger affordable housing as well.
Currently, decisions on developments are taken by local councils, with larger or more contentious applications decided by a committee of councillors. The Government’s proposed reforms would take powers away from these elected local representatives (the City Council in Oxford). Councils would have some say in designating areas for Growth, Renewal or Protection, but after that point would be almost powerless to influence development.
In the new system, in Growth areas, proposals would be automatically granted outline planning permission, with detailed planning decisions delegated to planning officers. In Renewal Areas (infill of residential areas, development in town centres, and edge of villages), there would be a presumption in favour of development, with some kinds of development receiving automatic consent. Protected Areas would retain the current planning application process.
I am particularly worried about the impact that these reforms will have on our ability to build affordable housing. Oxford has an acute housing crisis and is one of the most unaffordable cities in the country for housing. Currently, affordable housing in developments are paid for by levies placed on developers. The Conservatives have already watered down some of the requirements that Labour governments had put into place to enable councils to require social housing as part of developments.
Now, the government is proposing wholesale change to the way affordable housing is delivered, including reducing the amount of social rented housing to be built, and replacing it with “First Homes” – a much more expensive product which will be simply unaffordable for many people. I am concerned that the government will remove existing funding streams for affordable housing with no clear plan for what will replace them. Indeed, while the Government has committed to delivering 300,000 new homes a year, they do not have any targets for social rent, intermediate and affordable homeownership – nor for retirement or other specialist housing.
While the government argues that the planning reforms would increase the rate of housebuilding, over the last decade over one million homes have been granted planning permission but have not been built. This shows that the real problem is the failure to ensure that sites with planning permission have been built out. The government is removing important safeguards and community involvement in the planning process with no evidence that it will lead to more homes being built.
Labour believes that good development can only happen when developers and communities work together. The Government’s proposed reforms would unbalance the system and take power away from Oxford people. For that reason, I will keep fighting against them.