Planning rules aren’t just ‘red tape’ – they’re essential for building affordable homes people actually want to live in

The government’s new plans have clearly been developed in a vacuum by politically motivated policy wonks with little understanding of how the real world works

The government promises to cut red tape over planning permission for building new homes
The government promises to cut red tape over planning permission for building new homes

The government’s so-called planning revolution will be a disaster for London and will ride roughshod over communities and locally elected representatives. It will mean fewer social and affordable homes being built every year, poorer quality housing and local people left with out-of-place buildings and no opportunity to have their say. It is a nakedly ideological assault on local democracy and an attack on London and Londoners.

The promise in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto that “the days of Whitehall knows best are over” looks increasingly laughable. Instead of devolution or levelling up, we now have a grab for power by the centre, with the government imposing a top-down, one-size-fits-all system.

Ministers just don’t seem to understand that planning rules aren’t “red tape” – they’re the basic standards which help deliver social and affordable homes in decent neighbourhoods that people want to live in. Unleashing developers to build or convert whatever they like, with only flimsy rules set remotely in Whitehall, will just mean more small, poor quality and expensive homes – out of reach of the vast majority of Londoners.

The secretary of state might think he knows what is best for London. But if these proposals are anything to go by, he clearly doesn’t. He should stop meddling and let Londoners decide what’s best for our city.

If lockdown has taught us anything, it is how important our homes, neighbourhoods and high streets are to our wellbeing and prosperity. Londoners want us to build back better, with a greener, fairer, safer city. Yet it seems the government has learned nothing. This half-baked policy will pose a major obstacle to our economic recovery and will only lead to the erosion of our high streets and public spaces. It’s no surprise that the Royal Institute of British Architects has already called the proposals “shameful”.

City Hall and London’s boroughs are united in our concerns. Ministers know their plans are deeply flawed. Their own study on permitted development rights – which allow offices to be converted into flats with no say for local people – concluded that the quality of the homes built through this deliberate loophole are significantly worse than homes delivered through planning applications. Only 22 per cent of permitted development conversions meet national space standards and 72 per cent are single aspect, having windows on only one side. In fact, until a few weeks ago, windows were not required at all! The government shamefully tried to bury this report by releasing it on the same day as the report into alleged Russian interference in UK elections.

By contrast, London’s current planning system is working. According to Home Builders Federation figures, 69,300 new homes were granted planning permission in London in the year to September 2019, which is far above the average of 48,200 in the final term of the previous mayor.

Of course, delivery is crucial. Last year, we started more than 17,000 new genuinely affordable homes in London – more than at any time since records began in 2003. More than 3,300 new council homes were also started – the most in any year since 1983. Overall, my administration has delivered over 40 per cent more homes during my tenure than the previous mayor, now the prime minister, in his last term at City Hall.

There can be no complacency. We know that the challenge is delivery and getting new homes and infrastructure built more rapidly – this is even harder after Covid-19. I want to work with the government to speed up the process of delivering new homes, including securing a proper public funding package for social and affordable homes. This would help stimulate the economy, create jobs and, ultimately, give more Londoners a better chance to get on in life.

If the government was serious about providing the development sector with the conditions it needs to bring sites forward and take investment decisions, it would agree the new London Plan immediately and let the industry and boroughs get on so that we can keep London building. The plan provides for more than 520,000 new homes over a 10-year period, which is an increase of almost 100,000 homes on the previous decade.

The government’s new plans have clearly been developed in a vacuum by politically motivated policy wonks with little understanding of how the real world works. They are a recipe for disaster and would just represent an acceleration of the disastrous policies Boris Johnson pursued in London when he was mayor.

I urge the prime minister and his advisers to row back on this damaging policy and seek to engage with us and our communities so that we can deliver a greener, fairer recovery for our city, rather than deny local accountability, scrutiny and democratic challenge. We will fight this all the way, and we clearly won’t be alone.

Sadiq Khan is the mayor of London

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