MPs attack plan to give housebuilders freedom to build over ‘growth’ zones

A radical government plan to give housebuilders freedom to build over designated “growth” zones has been attacked by MPs who have told ministers the public must retain rights to object to planning applications.

Boris Johnson included in last month’s Queen’s speech plans to bring forward the biggest overhaul of England’s planning system since the second world war. Its boldest idea was to remove the need for detailed planning applications for buildings in designated growth zones.

It sparked a Tory backbench revolt amid concerns constituents would lose power over their local areas. Now the housing communities and local government select committee has concluded it will not produce a quicker, cheaper and democratic planning system.

The MPs also warned that the reforms failed to explain how the government’s goal of building 300,000 new homes a year to end the housing crisis would be met, and called for clearer evidence for that target and for transparency about where the homes would be built and why.

Last month the UK office of statistics regulation raised concern about the accuracy of some official population estimates, which are used to determine housing targets, particularly when migrant populations, including students, are accounted for. It followed a complaint about allegedly overinflated housing targets for Coventry.

The MPs also said a proposal to scrap payments made by developers to the public purse, known as section 106, should be dropped as doing so would threaten the supply of affordable homes.

“Public engagement is critical in planning – and our report stresses the need for the government to really get to grips with how it can best involve local people in the planning process,” said Clive Betts, the chair of the cross-party committee. “This is essential if any changes to the planning system are to be a success.”

The government published a planning white paper last August, which proposed splitting land into three categories: for growth, renewal or protection. Growth areas would be “suitable for substantial development” and proposals would automatically be granted outline planning permission with details agreed by officials, cutting out public objections.

But the committee said “individuals must still be able to comment and influence upon all individual planning proposals” and concluded: “We are unpersuaded that the government’s zoning-based approach will produce a quicker, cheaper, and democratic planning system. The government should reconsider the case for the three areas proposal.”

It warned that allowing the public a say only over area-based plans in growth areas would alienate voters.

The committee said it agreed with the government’s desire to speed up housebuilding but suggested that more stringent “use-it-or-lose-it” rules on planning consents should be used to increase pressure on developers and landowners not to sit on sites for years.

They called on ministers to set a limit of 18 months following discharge of planning conditions for work to commence on site. If work has not progressed to the satisfaction of the local planning authority then the planning permission may be revoked. After a further 18 months to allow for construction, the local council should then be able to levy full council tax for each housing unit which has not been completed.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Our reforms will mean a quicker, more efficient and less bureaucratic planning system so we can build more much needed homes across the country. Local people and high quality design will be at the heart of these changes, while protecting our heritage and green spaces.”

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