Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.
The Government’s White Paper “Planning for the Future” is 80 pages long, but essential reading – and not just for ” built environment nerds”. Nicholas Boys-Smith, of Create Streets, has made an excellent case for it. As someone who has served as a Planning Chairman on Westminster City Council for much of the last 15 years’ and more recently served as the London Assembly’s Planning Chairman (2016-17) and Regeneration Chairman (2018-20) I commend his work.
While Boys-Smith covered the planning specifics, it’s the politics I wish to cover here. A recent Financial Times report should be a “wake up call” for those who think we still live in an analogue age – including some voices at the Local Government Association, London Councils, and “Sadiq Can’t” – as the Prime Minister calls the deeply disappointing Mayor of London.
The FT declares that “Apple passes markets’ milestone as shares take valuation to $2 trillion.” A doubling in just two years. The White Paper spells out these realities – with proposed solutions. To be clear, Covid has accelerated trends as great as those that followed the changes to society within decades of the invention of trains, motor cars, and jet engines. The internet is here to stay. The public has chosen to do nearly half of shopping online. They exercise choice – which is a Conservative word. That means the mix of buildings we will need in the future will be very different.
When I read some of the ill-informed coverage of the White Paper it makes me think of the mob which protested outside Wapping Print Works and Orgreave mines in the 1980s. Luddites are as old as history. My London constituency contained (at least pre-covid) the biggest cluster of wealth-creating businessmen and women globally with the possible exception of New York.
One canny self-made Sunday Times Rich List constituent put it much better than I can:
“Whenever someone says they have made their money in X, it almost always came from either food, the rag trade, land and property. That’s where the tax comes from to pay for our public services. Which the Left forget”.
When I first sat on a Council Planning Committee in 2006, I was astonished by the almost artisan 19th Century approach of much of planning. But, as the White Paper states “notices (of planning applications) on lampposts are changing to an interactive map based online system”. Since March 2020, many Councils have seen greater political engagement, with Covid encouraging residents’ to use existing online tools to register their views. Hundreds, not dozens, of people are having their say.
The White Paper will be modified before becoming law. It is not perfect, nor does it pretend to be. But it is right to focus on two outcomes:
- Reform equals more homes and more jobs. We hear a great deal about Europe from the media. I have yet to see many quote page 14 of the White Paper: “In Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, you can get twice as much housing space for your money compared to the UK”. We can make the necessary reforms here and learn the lessons which underpin the White Paper from the late great Sir Roger Scruton’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. Does anyone seriously believe we don’t need more homes or jobs?
- Reform equals proper (not tickbox) engagement of the entire community. From MP’s expenses – to the Brexit referendum – has shown we all need to do more to win back the publics’ trust. At present I am receiving dozens of emails a week from upset constituents in Hammersmith and Fulham who feel a planning application was rushed through just before Covid with little or no communication changing the entire feel of their locality. The current system is not fit for purpose. Only those who work full time in the planning world fully comprehend how to “work the system”. Reform of a 1947 system is urgently required. Please note it does not mean conservation areas are under threat – something I would fight against with all my power. Design must be improved for many buildings.
So do read and respond to the White Paper with its 26 questions. To all my colleagues in local government, please help make this long overdue reform work. Something we can be proud of.
My grandfather was a housebuilder in the 1920s and 1930s. When I read that in the last 30 years, the number of small builder businesses have dropped by 40 per cent I applaud Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government, for taking on noisy special interests. He may follow Ken Baker, Iain Duncan-Smith, and Michael Gove, and be one of the few Cabinet Ministers to actually achieve something.