Jane Hunt is the MP for Loughborough.
Since I started campaigning for the Party 36 years ago, planning policy has been a recurring concern on the doorstep. This has only become more acute in recent times, as we have seen large-scale development in rural areas putting pressure on local communities and the services they rely on.
I, therefore, welcome the renewed discussion about calculating housing need in the Government’s consultation, Changes to the Current Planning System, which closed last week. I responded to this consultation on behalf of my constituents with my thoughts on the proposed method and I hope that these points are given due consideration.
Of course, this consultation feeds in to the wider discussion about how we can make the planning system simpler, more competitive, and, crucially, ensure that we are meeting the needs of our local areas and communities. It supports the Government’s second consultation, Planning for the Future, which closes at the end of October. This is the White Paper I would now like to focus on as, to my mind, it has many positive aspects and provides an opportunity for us to look again at how we can support our high streets and town centres.
For decades, our high streets have been largely ignored or taken for granted: first, with the movement towards out of town shopping centres and, then, with the shift towards online shopping. What we have seen most recently with the global pandemic, however, is that there is a need for communities that work, and town centres are integral to that mechanism.
I, therefore, welcomed the three planning Statutory Instruments which sought to: reform the use class order; permit for building upwards of two storeys; and regenerate brownfield land. All of these changes will support the renewal of our high streets, giving boarded up stores a new lease on life.
However, we can and need to go further, and the second White Paper sets out proposals for a new planning process with more democracy taking place at the plan-making stage. The local plan will effectively become the tender document of local people, instructing the market on what they would like and asking for bids. It will set out the parameters of what is needed, and it will be up to developers to put forward proposals to meet that need and those parameters. This, linked with a 30 month time frame to produce a local plan, will transform the current set up of delay, repetition of action, and the inevitable outcome of piecemeal development which is lacking in what the man in the street would refer to as an actual plan, and which often carries with it local criticism of the result to the unwarranted detriment of the local planners whose expertise are not recognised by the current setup.
Under the new system, local residents, along with the expertise at their local planning authority, will be able to determine what they want for their community and, more importantly, what will work. This will lead to a local plan that is coherent and more defined to meet local need, so developers can understand what the requirements are. If this is also linked to the dropping of the five year land supply rule, then developers will be encouraged to focus their build-out energy on the areas where local people want to build.
The White Paper, rightly, places a strong emphasis on building beautiful and creating beautiful spaces, which is vital to any town centre, not only in terms of creating a destination, but also in creating a special, perhaps unique, environment where people come to visit to see the spectacle and experience the atmosphere, as well as to shop. In particular, while we should be removing and re-developing the concrete monstrosities erected in the 1960s when many towns were being developed, it is important that we protect our older historical buildings wherever we can. For example, Loughborough has dozens of Art Deco buildings and these should be maintained and preserved for future generations.
As well as being beautiful, town centres need to be compact and flexible spaces to provide areas for markets, events and entertaining, as well as traditional shopping. Take a look at a satellite photo of any town in the UK and you will see large buildings that used to house major stores. Legacy buildings such as these were built when most shops were in town centres and there was no ‘just in time’ delivery so storage was needed. These stores take up huge areas of our towns and are, sadly, often empty due to the change in shopping habits. This creates disparity in towns and creates a larger town centre footprint than is now necessary meaning visitors have further distances to walk to get to shops and facilities spread out by the historical footprint, rather than current need, often passing blank space on their way. Of course, an anchor store or two is helpful, but it is the independent local shops and markets with their unique offerings which will attract people to visit, in addition to useful facilities such as barbers / hairdressers, nail bars, butchers and banks.
Move away from the satellite photo and stand on the high street itself looking up, and you will find many buildings with empty space above shops. Again, through renewal, converting these into places for people to live creates an immediately available customer base for the shops below. This can be further facilitated by bringing more people into town centres to work and study, and I am supportive of the proposals in the consultation to “ensure decisions on the locations of new public buildings – such as government office and further education colleges – support renewal and regeneration of town centres”. This will help support local shops and facilities in the daytime, and, if it is combined with measures to develop the twilight economy, in the evening as well.
Brownfield sites also detract from the overall beauty of a city, and the brownfield and derelict donut we often see around them can bring the whole city down – the centre as well as the suburbs. For decades, this land has been seen as ideal for commercial development, but now is the time to designate this land for residential use. This would allow commuters to live much closer to their place of work, reducing their carbon footprint on transport, which will be further reduced by the proposals in this White Paper for all new homes being ‘zero carbon ready’. Victorian and Edwardian warehousing should be renovated and turned into accommodation, rather than torn down. But I do not think we should be afraid to build housing, particularly bungalows and extra care housing for the elderly and disabled, close to the centre of towns and cities so that the residents have easier access to shops, utilities, and entertainment. If brownfield land in cities is used more for accommodation, then fewer dwellings will also need to be built on greenfield sites. I wrote a paper along these lines at the start of the year which can be found here.
In conclusion, the future is brighter for our town centres, should the proposals in the White Paper be adopted. As long as the emphasis remains on formulating a local plan determined by local residents, along with the expertise of their local planners, in a shorter timescale, then there will be more public confidence that the system will provide what the local community wants, when it wants it.