Congratulations to Michael Gove on becoming the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary. It must be frustrating for Robert Jenrick to be departing the role having worked on some important reforms that he will not be able to see through to fruition. Jenrick was subjected to some unfair criticisms but I suspect his contribution will prove to be of considerable value. That is because, in broad terms, I expect the mission will continue to be pursued. Gove may have arrived and Jenrick left. But the fundamentals have not changed. We need to build a lot more homes. The only way this will be acceptable is if they are beautiful. The polling when alternative images are offered is pretty emphatic. To coin a phrase, people need to take back control. Local design codes, with popular local approval, could mean that the people, not the planners, decide what local buildings look like – and then they will be welcomed.
Furthermore, Gove is a true believer. Delivering the 2013 Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies, Gove said:
“I believe that we cannot think of our built environment without thinking of beauty. Many of the most beautiful vistas in the United Kingdom are beautiful because of building. Whether it’s Chatsworth or the Nash terraces of Regent’s Park, Edinburgh’s New Town or Salisbury Cathedral, the man-made environment is as capable of inspiring awe as anything in nature. So when we think of new building we should not think only of losing some undeveloped land – we should also think of the potential to create something of grace and beauty, to ravish the eye and lift up the soul. That too few modern buildings can aspire to real beauty is a challenge to the architectural profession. But it is not an argument against development per se. As Charles Moore has said, if you fear there are too many houses built in the countryside, which ones would you pull down? Easton Neston? Cliveden? Waddesdon? The sandstone homes of Stamford or the limestone cottages of Berwick St John? We have built homes of transcendent beauty in the past. We can do so again.”
Gove added that “because we have not had an equilibrium between housing demand and supply we have not had a proper housing market.” He noted that “increasingly, access to home ownership has become the preserve of those with family wealth.” Even more true than when he delivered the lecture.
While it is hard to deny that there is a problem, some argue that the planning system is not to blame. The Local Government Association insists that permission has been granted for plenty of homes but the developers are “land banking” instead of getting on with building them. The Home Builders Federation respond that this is misleading. A look at the planning performance tables might leave you to sympathise with the LGA and wonder what all the fuss is about. 88.5 per cent of the “major decisions” on planning applications are made within the target deadline of 13 weeks. The great majority are approved.
The difficulty is that the “major decision” is not enough to allow you to start laying bricks. To settle the argument between the LGA and the HBF just google the recent agendas for your local authority’s planning committee. There will probably be some reports from planning officers recommending approval of applications for new homes. But then comes the hitch. There is a long list of “conditions” listed.
A spot check on one of them for my council found the ominous phrase “shall be submitted to and approved in writing by the council” appeared 25 times. The words “no development shall commence until” appears before it. In between those phrases: a requirement for a strategy for this, an assessment of that, a scheme for something else. Once the developer has produced the report it can sit in a town hall filing cabinet for months. Perhaps then the bureaucrat will reply that it isn’t quite up to scratch so a new version must be sent in. Then that one gathers dust for a few more months. On it goes.
So the developers are right to claim that the planning system does cause severe delays. But the HBF proposal that more planning officers be recruited to clear the backlog strikes me as naive. Parkinson’s Law would apply – “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” More planning officers would probably just come up with a longer list of necessary reports and thus make matters even worse.
It would be better to give councils tight deadlines to respond with any objections – or otherwise the developer is deemed to have met the obligations required. But most of the conditions are, in any case, misconceived on principle. Our legal system is supposed to be based on the principle that “everything which is not forbidden is allowed”. Instead, the planning arrangements seem to apply the Napoleonic system applied on the continent that you can’t do anything unless it is explicitly allowed. There should be general legal safeguards against noise, or pollution, or obstruction, or harming trees, or causing flooding. The builders should keep within the law or face strong penalties. But they should not have to send in a report for municipal approval saying how they would fulfil all those requirements.
There is no mystery as to why smaller developers have been driven out of business by these burdens. Nor is it a surprise that self-build is such a daunting task. The bigger firms find it easier to cope. They can hire consultants and lawyers. They can spread the risk by having several sites at once. If one site is on hold, awaiting approval for a drainage compliance risk assessment or whatever it is, they might have another where work can proceed.
Another area where rules should be lifted concerns the internal arrangements of a property – room sizes and so forth. Not only is such meddling by the state wrong in principle – it is also damaging in practice. Millions of us live in terraced houses. They provide high density and are very popular. Yet it would today be illegal to build the house I am perfectly content to live in. It has a doorstep – which would be banned to provide step-free access. The staircase is a bit too narrow. There are highly prescriptive Building Regulations. Then councils make them even more onerous. For instance, the national minimum ceiling height is seven and half feet. But the Planning Guidance from my council sets it at 8.2 feet.
Of course, we have minimum total space requirements for new homes. 350 square feet if there is one bedroom. 270 square feet for a bedsit. This has the well-intentioned motive that there is a decent amount of space. It is noted that typically other countries have larger homes than we do. But that is because they have more liberal planning policies and thus greater supply. The prohibition on micro-homes just makes overcrowding worse.
But what is still more unreasonable is that officialdom not merely tells us what “gross internal area of the dwelling” is required, but how it should be configured. The size of the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the kitchen, the storage space, the sitting room and so on. Why the need for identikit state sanctioned housing? Why not allow variety and then let us choose according to our own tastes, requirements, and wallets?
Planning is a vast subject. To argue it should be made easier or harder is an over-simplification. It should be much harder to build hideous tower blocks. Much easier to build neo-classical terraced streets. But overall, Gove’s task is considerable. To achieve the aims he set out in his CPS lecture nine years ago, he not only needs to complete Jenrick’s work. He must go above and beyond.