In terms of housing and planning, the hallmarks of the 12-year austere and increasingly blindly ideological Tory regime is a deep housing crisis, the removal of the right to a home as a basic human right, and a lack of mass, state-subsidised housing that has caused inequality to spiral in the UK. This is most visible in drastic increases in homelessness, but there is also a problem at the majority of people under 40, even with relatively decent (by post-2008 UK standards, so already lagging quite a bit behind those of France and Germany) salaries cannot afford to buy a home and are trapped in an unregulated and parasitic rental market with zero protection.
Undoubtedly this has got worse under Tory rule, but as discussed previously the problems began under Thatcher in her mass sell-off of Council-owned homes and the project was certainly exacerbated and continued under New Labour.
As outlined in my previous post, one thing I agree with the Tories, albeit for entirely different reasons, is that the UK planning system is broken. I radically disagree, however, with their proposed remedies for all the UK’s planning ailments. These are presented in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. As a side note, given our most recent governmental collapse I do imagine this will be shelved anyhow, and the Levelling Up agenda (and what little impact it has made so far) will be abandoned. But that’s a different story.
I’ll present the proposed planning solutions outlined in the LUR Bill, and then let’s take each one piece by piece.
1. New central powers implemented at the local level
A nod towards vernacular architecture, whereby all local authorities would be required to have a design code in place covering their planning jurisdiction.
“The area-wide codes will act as a framework, for which subsequent detailed design codes can come forward, prepared for specific areas or sites and led either by the local planning authority, neighbourhood planning groups or by developers as part of planning applications. This will help ensure good design is considered at all spatial scales, down to development sites and individual plots.”
More streamlined decision-making
Local plans would be limited to locally specific matters, and key issues would be covered by national policies. I think this flies in the face of the whole decentralisation thing that is ostensibly at the heart of levelling up, but in principle I’m not against it. Certain things, like a real green energy policy, or net zero transition, or mass social housing require a national-level plan.
The problem is, our national level policymaking is inherently broken and policies are no longer made in the public interest. In practice then, this simply will not work to the benefit of the population.
Regional and local autonomy in decision making
The above seems to contradict other parts of the Bill, which stipulates that more weight will be given to neighbourhood plans and spatial development strategies proposed by Combined Authorities and Mayors. So, how does that play into key issues being covered only at national level? We need to understand then, what the Bill means by “key issues.”
Local authorities will also be allowed to quickly create supplementary plans for their areas (or part thereof). This means that local authorities will be able to quickly produce policies and designs for sites or whole areas rapidly.
New combined authorities created
Personally I think that the entire governance structure of the UK should not be relegated to a footnote in a planning bill but should be given its own entire department. But still, at least it recognises that the Combined Authority structure is designed for urban areas. The new Bill allows “upper tier” councils to combine (i.e. county level, often used for large but sparsely populated rural areas). Or as the Bill puts it:
“main difference between combined county authorities and combined authorities is the membership: a combined county authority must include one two-tier county council and at least one other upper tier county council or upper tier unitary authority (i.e. district councils cannot be members and do not consent to the forming of a combined county authority), whereas a combined authority has to include all the local authorities within the area it is to cover (i.e. in a two-tier area, the county council and all district councils must be members, and consent to the forming of the combined authority)”.
i.e: NAPOLEON!!!! WHERE ARE YOU?!!!!
2. More community
Under the new bill, there is a placeholder to add a clause to allow residents on a street would be allowed to propose developments on their street and hold a vote as to whether a proposed development should take place or not.
That might be a good suggestion in theory, but I would dread to think how it would actually play out IRL in bitter Britain of 2022….
The Bill introduces something called “a neighbourhood priorities statement” which provides communities with a “simpler and more accessible way to set out their key priorities and preferences for their local areas. Local authorities will need to take these into account, where relevant, when preparing their local plans for the areas concerned, enabling more communities to better engage in the local plan-making process”.
I’m not really sure what this means other than modernise local authorities planning portals. So far, I haven’t seen much evidence of this but there is a definite need for an upgrade to the 21st century.
Although, not entirely sure how this alone is supposed to magic up a cosy neighbourhood, community feel. I wonder if the Government simply do not understand the scale of the crisis the country, and especially the northern portion, is facing. It certainly feels like that.
Improved high streets
Local authorities could be granted new powers to instigate auctions to take leases on vacant high street properties.
It is certainly undeniable that our high streets are ailing, especially in Northern cities and outside of affluent areas. While leafy Surrey and Kent and Hampstead Garden Suburb etc. may be full of cutsey little boutiques and artisan bakeries, that is not the reality of much of the country. Even the betting shops, money lenders, pawnshops, poundlands, outdated newsagents and Greggs so ubiquitous on high streets in the immediate post-crash years, now even those are becoming scarce and replaced increasingly by empty, boarded up lots.
However, this is a quick and shallow fix to a much, much deeper problem. It’s no coincidence that high streets are dying in areas of the country where people can barely afford milk, bread, and cheese. They aren’t going to be buying cutsey little loaves, organic produce or handmade patisserie. The country has become poor and that is the fault of austerity politics peddled by this increasingly criminal and corrupt bunch and a total failure to address structural economic issues in our deindustrialised country by this dim-witted, greedy and unimaginative political class.
Council tax premium on second homes
“local authorities may levy a premium of up to an additional 100 per cent on council tax bills for second homes and for empty homes after one year (as opposed to two years which is the current requirement).”
In principle, fair enough. However, like closing loopholes or actually mapping out transparent land ownership structures, this pays lip service and I doubt the Tories would actually instigate anything. Also, there needs to be much more tightly regulated second home market and the Airbnbification of beauty spots, crippling local communities for example in the Lake District, is barely discussed in the UK (unlike, for example in Barcelona or Berlin). In the UK I would argue this is mainly a rural issue, and rural communities are facing dire consequences.
2. Improve transparency of land ownership and land use
Land control in England and Wales
Land control in all four corners of the United Kingdom is extraordinarily complicated. We never had a Napoleon to reform the land and standardise our system of governance. I would argue that the Domesday book, the first land census conducted in post-1066 (i.e after the Norman Conquest and the last time we were invaded, which has done all sorts of strange things to the British psyche and is one of the common explanations as to why our establishment are so weird and incompetent) was the last time any major attempt was made to map land ownership and understand how land is the wretched place is parcelled. We missed a trick with Cromwell in 1652, the English revolution more than a full century before the French Revolution and two before the Russian. It was a world first but we were too soon to be relevant, and to paraphrase a bunch of innovation-y motivational speaker-y type entrepreneurs (James Allworth and Howard Marks Google tells me), potentially stolen from an Italian politician (was it D’Alema?) and parroted by Ivanka Trump: too early is the same as being wrong.
So yes. Agreed. The United Kingdom is thirsty for land control.
But. The new bill is super vague and doesn’t stipulate how such a Herculean task would be undertaken:
The bill simply “includes measures that will facilitate a better understanding of who ultimately owns or controls land in England and Wales.” This supports a 2017 Housing White Paper commitment by “collecting and publishing data on contractual arrangements used by developers to control land, such as rights of pre-emption, options, and conditional contracts”.
Close Planning Loopholes
The Bill allegedly strengthens powers available to local authorities to enforce planning rules and laws. I am sceptical however: since when does this government do anything to close loopholes that ultimately benefit the propertied classes?
And: this country barely seems to have any laws, just recommendations and policies. Good luck enforcing those.
Amending the Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) system.
CPO allows local authorities to purchase parcels of land that may belong to private owner(s) to develop new infrastructure. This will be extended to include CPOs for regeneration, especially of brownfield land.
In theory, again, a welcome change, but very vague as to how it might be implemented beyond “changes to publicity requirements around CPOs and how their inquiries are held.”
Centralised government oversight of street names
Again, in a perfect world with a nice, benevolent state this could not be a bad thing. Seemingly, it stemmed from the BLM movement in 2020 and could be used to remove monuments, street names, and plaques which could be deemed offensive. All local authorities would need to follow the same process to change names in consultation with residents. So far, so good.
But based on the current government’s track record, it could be a bit scary. Do we really want Thatcher Avenues, von Hayek Streets and Ayn Rand Roads to pop up all over our cities? Removal of everything related to anything remotely left or anti-Tory, such as the move in Manchester to rid Manchester of its statue of Fredriech Engels?
Sounds to me like another strand of the concocted culture war of the right wing. Remove the slave owners, racists and colonisers, and be done with it.
Listed parks and gardens
Registered parks and gardens would get the same planning protection as Listed Buildings. A bit Victorian, but fine by me. Increasing the amount of public space and making it more inclusive and democratic would help, but that’s another battle for another day.
5. Replacing EIA and SEA
A new post-Brexit “Environmental Outcomes Report.”
Since Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) are EU processes, we will need to create our own. Given this government’s track record on the environment, and the fact that our rivers have gone from one of the cleanest in Europe to open sewers in a mere 12 years, I’m not holding my breath on what this might entail.
The bill states that it will “[…] for the first time, allow the government to reflect its environmental priorities directly in the decision-making process.”
Under this government, this scares me since their only consistent priority is…cutting corners and making money?
6. Cross-boundary working
Combined Authorities and Mayoralties working together
Groups of CAs could voluntarily coordinate spatial strategies across borders on specific cross-boundary issues. This might include net zero plans, or transport for example. This imbues the CAs with more decision-making and executive power than they have (which, let’s face it, is currently minimal).
Creation of Local-Led Urban Development Corporations
The UK Planning system, as mentioned previously, is notoriously patchy and contains relics of planning theories past (many of which have been since wholly discredited, particularly the 1960s fixation with building cities to accommodate cars and not much else). Accordingly, there are currently four types of development corporation:
• New Town Development Corporation
• Urban Development Corporation
• Mayoral Development Corporation
• local-led New Town Development Corporation.
Being the UK, as everything here all of these have different levels of power, cover different remits, and have differing priorities (Napoleon please come and save us!!)
This bill focuses on locally-led Urban Development Corporations, with the aim of regenerating the local area and accountable to local authorities rather than the central state.
This is welcome, but only on two conditions: firstly, if it replaces the fragmentary and piecemeal current status (which there’s no indication it will, unless I interpreted it incorrectly it seems the bill just introduces a new strand to the existing hotchpotch); and secondly, local authorities are given more money, resource, and expertise to adequately oversee the activities of the Urban Development Corporation. If it’s just yet another thing tagged on to councils already stretched to breaking point, forget it.
7. Replacement of S106 and CIL with a new Infrastructure Levy.
Section 106 merits an entry in its own rite, and it has been abused supremely over the years especially by super rich developers. CIL, which is similar to S106 but includes an expanded range of infrastructure, is similar in nature. Developers are expert at dodging their responsibilities and giving back to society.
Therefore, I don’t think a new Infrastructure Levy will hold much water. The wording is worrying vague, as per usual: “There will also be “a process to require developers to deliver some forms of infrastructure that are integral to the design and delivery of a site”.
So, that summarises what the Bill contains. The next task it to work out what each of these proposals actually mean in practice. More to follow.