Is this the end of land-use planning as we know it?

So we’re familiar with our right to object to a planning application. We’ve all seen the site notices pinned to convenient lampposts inviting us to comment on next door’s new extension. We can watch news coverage of the latest big development proposed for the edge of town. And we’ve seen the protests and objections that come thick and fast when the development isn’t what people want.

In the current system, Councillors are accountable; they must justify and defend new developments.  Unseen, but just as important, is the sway Councils can levy onto new developments; this often helps to pay for work on schools, libraries and other areas, where the public purse won’t stretch.

The Government wants to change all of that. No more objections. No more site notices. Councillors no longer deciding. Instead, we’ll have a new system, one that has been used in the past to create segregation. It’s called zonal planning. And this is not the type the Dutch use, where you literally need to adhere to a particular size of window when you build something. It’s more American style, light touch.  Build houses wherever you want – we’re not that bothered about the detail really…

Somehow, it seems our Government have forgotten why Planning was invented. Back then it was a response to the Victorian slums; a public health crisis, which still haunts us today. The central premise was that the public interest – so concerns over people’s health, the environment they live in, access to schools and education – should take precedence over a developer’s profit.

After the second world war the Government went further by introducing the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act; that radical Act nationalised the right to develop land. Owning land was no longer enough to allow you to develop it; from 1947 you needed permission. Yet right now, Number 10’s Special Advisor, Jack Airey, is specifically gunning for the ‘principles’ of the 1947 Act, as ‘outdated’.  The new policy talks of freeing planning to allow for ‘beautiful buildings’, but neglects to mention that we won’t have a say; we’ll lose both local democratic decision-making and our right to object.

The system already allows for shocking decisions. In 1919 the minimum size for a new socially rented home was around 54 square meters, now you can find flats being marketed at 8 sqm. There is no law that guarantees a new home should even have a window. No one would argue that we don’t need more homes, but we’re currently building slums on a scale not seen since the late 19th century.

Yes Planning does need reform; the current system is tough to navigate, like a complicated game where the rules keep being changed. And it’s true that local councillors can make decisions which can seem more party political than public interest driven.  But what are the real problems? Land values are too high. Not enough social housing is being built for those who need it. Homes are poor quality. Many are being built in the wrong place and most aren’t fit for a zero carbon economy.

It’s not the people who object who are the problem. Mostly they are simply pointing out the obvious; a treasured green space will be lost, air pollution could increase, there’s no affordable housing, too much noise and more traffic from new roads. Is the Government saying it doesn’t want to hear about this any more? Probably. It’s certainly not saying it wants to let you decide.

There are alternatives. Land values could be better dealt with by way of a tax – and as originally envisaged back in 1947, the rise in the value of land could pay for the schools, health services and amenities that people want in their communities.

So much has happened in planning that there is an understandable lack of public trust. Yet you can’t rebuild trust by taking away an individual’s right to object and the role of the local politicians they elect.  So, think again, Number 10. This is not the way to let us decide what goes where.

Take Action: we are happy to support this SumOfUs petition: “Stop Cummings stripping away our rights”.



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