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'The government's planning proposals miss a trick'

The recent proposals to get the construction sector moving again are misguided, says the UKGBC’s Joanne Wheeler.

Just a few short months ago, the government undertook to ‘streamline’ the planning system by condensing thousands of pages of guidance into a 50 page document, the National Planning Policy Framework.

Remarkably, after intense lobbying from both the green NGOs and the development industry, the then Planning Minister Greg Clark managed to achieve an impressive level of consensus when the final draft was published last March.

Odd then that just a few months later the government has chosen to reopen this particular Pandora’s box.  Last week brought further attacks on planners, with headline-grabbing statements from the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister about the need for planners to ‘get off people’s backs’ to get the economy moving. Proposals included relaxing the rules for building extensions and conservatories, and encouragement for local authorities to reconsider green belt boundaries.

While I whole-heartedly agree that the government is right to put the construction sector at the heart of economic recovery, further assaults on the planning system are unwarranted, coming just months after the biggest shake-up to the planning system in a generation.

What the politicians are over-looking is that planning is not just useless ‘red tape’: it helps to create and protect places which people value. Of course there’s a need to make sure that planners are doing their job in a timely fashion, and that the multiple and often competing requirements on developers do not end up making new development unviable.

To this end the UK Green Building Council recently produced some advice for planners and developers which was designed to tackle exactly this issue: how can we ensure the planning system delivers high quality, sustainable developments, but does not make unreasonable or ill thought through demands of developers that stifle growth?

However, planning is not the chief culprit here. Most people in the industry, including the Home Builders Federation, seem to agree that the real reasons why we’re not building enough homes and projects are stalling are complex, and have more to do with the lack of mortgage finance currently available than with an army of recalcitrant planners.

Some measures outlined last week to stimulate construction, such as extending the home-buying schemes, will hopefully help to ease this problem and are welcome. Others, it seems to me, are misguided.

Freeing up planning restrictions for extensions and conservatories and allowing a back garden free-for-all is surely just likely to result in warring neighbours, while doing little to actually get the construction sector moving.

As for the greenbelt issue which has grabbed so many headlines, local authorities already have powers to re-draw greenbelt boundaries, so it’s hard to see what is actually new here. Added to this, wherever you stand on this issue, altering the greenbelt is such a contentious issue that it seems highly unlikely that last week’s announcements will do much to get construction going in the near future.

So what can we do to get the sector moving? Well, my feeling is that this government has sadly missed a trick here. If they really want to boost construction, there are 26 million homes in the UK, the vast majority of which leak heat like a sieve. A real stimulus, to boost jobs and cut people’s energy bills, would be to get an army of builders out there insulating them properly this winter.



Parts of this blog appeared on UK-GBC’s website on 6 September 2012.

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