More house construction for the South-East?

There has been a surprisingly muted response to the changes in planning laws suggested recently by the Deputy Prime Ministers, John Prescott. Taken together with the huge ‘New Communities’ plan announced last year and the consequences of the Kate Barker housing report, Prescott’s ambitions could result in the concreting over of much of the remainder of South East England and the recommencement of the development of out of town superstores and shopping centres.

Planning is such a nebulous and little-understood subject that the momentous consequences of these various measures have not really sunk in. Sure, there have been a few angry articles from columnists like Simon Jenkins in The Times, but rural Britain is not up in arms in the way that it mustered protests for the much less significant issue of foxhunting.

The New Communities scheme, which encompasses four growth areas in the south east, seems to get bigger every time the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issues a statement about it. (Incidentally, the whole idea of the ODPM is a fantastic conceit, an administrative change in 2001 created to satisfy the ego of a politician who seemed to be well past his sell-by date but whom Tony Blair thinks is a vital player in keeping their disintegrating party together. Undoubtedly, come the next election, the ODPM will disappear, subsumed back into the departments out of which it was arbitrarily hewn).

Take Essex, for example. The council had thought that making provision for 28,000 new homes around Harlow would be plenty. No, said the planning minister, Lord Rooker, find space for a further 18,000 somewhere along the M11 corridor. There are 120,000 homes planned for Thames Gateway, and 133,000 in the Milton Keynes area over the next 12 years or so, which effectively means sizeable new towns on the periphery of existing ones are being created.

The Kate Barker review is also contentious. Sponsored by the Treasury, it effectively seems to give carte blanche for the construction of more housing across Britain. Barker argues that unless the cumbersome local planning system is speed up and, effectively, neutered, house prices will continue to reflect an underlying shortage by rising above the rate of inflation.

Barker quite deliberately attempts to weaken Nimbyism by trying to take the politics our of planning approvals by getting regional executives to set the goalposts. However, it is precisely local politics and Nimbyism which stops prevents many unsuitable developments from getting off the ground. It is, again, that tension between giving power to local people and recognising strategic needs which, under New Labour, always seems to be resolved by favouring the latter.

Probably the most important of these various changes is the proposed changed to the planning guidance (PPS6 and 7) which will decontrol the development of out of town shopping centres, probably the most disastrous social and environmental policy of the postwar period and restrict the ability of counties to rein back on such development.

County plans are to be subsumed into wider ‘regional strategies’ which means that individual authorities will no longer be able to oppose big local schemes as planners ill be forced to work to central targets directed by Whitehall. There will be a presumption in favour of development unless local people and authorities can show that their bit of countryside is special enough to merit saving. Not an easy task.

Existing superstores will be allowed to expand, even though the government argues that they are not in favour of out of town developments, a loophole that is bound to be widely abused. Moreover, even more worryingly, local authorities will have to take account of the business plans of companies promoting schemes. So how will any council be able to stop IKEA from building further outlets since their whole business plan is predicated on huge shops on greenfield sites? And according to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, is that the government is encouraging the development of shops on the outskirts of market towns, precisely where they would do the most damage to the local economy, not just retailers but suppliers who often sell their produce locally to small businesses.

What seems to be happening is that the burden of proof in respect of development has turned in favour of the developer rather than the local authority trying to control the process. In other words, it is almost as if permission for new developments, however controversial or out of keeping with the existing environment, should be granted unless there are really compelling reasons against it. And even then, it is up to the local authority to demonstrate them and if it fails in such an appeal, the costs will end up with the council.

As Simon Jenkins put it, the developer ‘need [not] worry over design, siting, appearance or infrastructure. Once he has his estate up, it is up. The worst he faces is a small fine. For Herefordshire, read Sicily’.

In fact, it is up to local authorities to make more of a noise about this. One problem is that there are conflicts between the demands of urban, suburban and rural authorities and there are no longer the different local authority bodies to represent their different voices. But that does not stop groups of like minded authorities who find themselves in similar situations, combining to make their voice heard. Unless they do so, London will effectively become the south east, as there will be a virtually continuous 50 mile square area of development, rather like Tokyo or Mexico City. If the public knew that this is the likely outcome of these various seemingly un-joined up policies, there would be widespread outrage.

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