Building back badly

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Following the statement by Dominic Cummings in The Times on 30th June, that he would like to “take an axe”, to planning laws, Boris Johnson has now publicly stated that he wants to “tear down the system and start again”. Obviously, a reprise of Cumming’s intentions, the result is essentially the same. Either way, chopping or tearing, planning had better watch out!  The new White Paper outlines how things will change.

Under the new system there will be planning zones, including brown-field sites, new towns and renewal areas. There will be targets and time limits speeding up the system. All this may sound like a good idea; the stories of endless planning processes and delays for permissions to build a car port are myriad but, as ever, the devil is in the detail.

The new proposals appear to have local authorities as key players. Those very local councils, which have had up to 70% of their budgets cut over the past 5 years and which are struggling to deal with the impact of Covid-19, will have targets for new houses and deadlines for planning and could be fined if they miss them. The fear is that a lack of consultation and funding will result in a system that allows developers to build fast and loose, with little accountability.

Even under our present planning laws, homeless people are re-housed, supposedly temporarily, in converted shipping containers. Tin boxes that are freezing in the winter, damp, cramped and boiling hot in the summer, and often located in areas not served by public services. If the ghetto-isation of the homeless is happening now under our present planning system, imagine what will happen under a government- run free-for-all. Even Tory MP Geoffrey Clifton – Brown claims that the watering down of the council veto could lead to lower quality homes, “We have got to be really sure that we are not building slums of tomorrow by building today at low quality.” 

London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has also expressed his concern over this missed opportunity to build sustainable, affordable housing. The term ‘affordable’ currently raises the question “affordable for whom?” What will happen when there are no requirements on developers to build any so- called affordable housing, let alone the real thing? Where is the green, sustainable housing in this White Paper? Where is social housing that isn’t made from steel hulks? Where are local infrastructural implications? Where is planning for communities? What will happen to all those town plans?

This could be the biggest deregulation of building controls for decades and the White Paper has been presented during Parliament’s summer recess.

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So, how might the Tories in the shires respond? Although driven by commercial interests which chime with Tory tenets, the building of 300, 000 new homes will impact on the existing market and house prices may be affected, as will the composition of communities and local environments.

But is the White Paper an indicator of something bigger?

The7th August headline in the i newspaper, ‘Demolition of Planning rules hands more power to No. 10’, seems to signal the next instalment of another wrecking and centralisation move by Number10.

Behind the scenes at No. 10 is fascinating at the moment. The PM is in sway, not only to Dominic Cummings, but to two other unelected influencers and this piece of planning law has all their hallmarks. One is Claire Fox and the other, Munira Mirza. Mirza is head of the Downing Street Policy Unit.  Claire Fox stood as a candidate for the BREXIT Party and has been nominated for a peerage by the Government.  Both were members of the, now defunct, Revolutionary Communist Party. All three special advisors play into Johnson’s right- wing libertarian urges to dismantle the state, with the caveat that the, so- called, free market will take over. The balance of power between our underfunded and crippled public services, an increasingly centralised power base, and the Conservative Parliamentary majority, means that soon we will not recognise our public institutions.

This White Paper may seem to be about a cheap housing fix; it is about so much more. The indicators are that the dismantling of the state has begun in plain sight and that this is just the start.

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