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Gove’s planning U-turn will delight Tory MPs - but key workers will be left in the cold

Clive Docwra
September 10, 2021

Plans only outlined in May look set to be shelved by new Housing Minister Michael Gove, and Clive Docwra writes that now, more than ever, we need to be building new homes if Gove's other brief, levelling up, is to stand any chance of achievement.

Michael Gove is the latest incumbent who will take on responsibility for Boris Johnson's vision of levelling up, and attempt to solve the current housing crisis, marked by severe shortages. The housing shortage is a problem that won't go away, and the struggle to get on the housing ladder is becoming ever more difficult. As a new report from the Centre for Policy Studies finds, key workers in both the public and private sectors bore the brunt of the pandemic, yet they have also found it hardest to move into home ownership. But if the rumours are true, it's likely that Gove will instead oversee a shelving of the proposed shake-up of the planning system which would have helped build more homes for those who need them.

The proposed reforms – only outlined in the Queen's Speech last May – would have simplified the planning process to make it more difficult to block new housing schemes, with newly designated 'growth' or 'protection' zones introduced and land labelled for growth getting automatic outline planning permission. Planning approval was set to be given to homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices in growth areas, with development in protected areas still restricted but not ruled out.

While the ditching of the plans may delight Tory MPs in marginal seats in the south east, it's bad news for those struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder. As Zoopla, the property website said last month, Britain is in the midst of the "greatest stock shortage since 2015" as the number of properties for sale dropped more than 25 per cent in June compared with the 2020 average.

In justifying the decision to scrap the plans, ministers may well point to figures showing that almost 244,000 homes were built in 2019-20 – the highest number since the late 1980s – and that construction started on more than 46,000 dwellings in the first three months of this year. This is a a 7 per cent increase when compared to last quarter and is the highest number of quarterly starts since January to March 2007.

But this is still not enough to meet demand. According to research by the House of Commons library, estimates have put the number of new homes needed in England at up to 345,000 per year, accounting for new household formation and a backlog of existing need for suitable housing.

Housing starts also only tell one side of the story. Official figures published on housing completions by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) show only an estimated 155,960 new build dwellings were completed in the year to March 2021 – a decrease of 11 per cent compared to the year to March 2020. Furthermore, planning permission being granted does not guarantee building starts quickly: according to Shelter, more than 380,000 homes granted planning permission between 2011 and 2019 remain unbuilt, accounting for 40 per cent of all homes with planning consent in England.

Building on land such as greenbelt is urgently needed. The amount of land designated as greenbelt has been increasing over recent decades, and, while it is right that we protect and preserve parts of our environment, much of this land is actually far from the bucolic pastures that the name conjures. A large proportion of it includes the likes of golf courses and disused airfields. According to 'The Golf Belt', a recent report undertaken by Russell Curtis, an architect, London's golf courses alone spread across an area larger than Brent and could provide homes for over 300,000 people.

As Paul Cheshire, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, has said: "We need to protect cherished land for public benefit but that is not the purpose of Green Belt designation. It is simply to have empty spaces between cities and prevent development. The land does not need to be 'green' – most is privately owned and the biggest use of it is for intensive agriculture."

Recent Government figures show a tiny percentage of green belt – just 0.28 per cent – is taken up by residential housing and flats. Even Mid-Sussex, for example, which has the highest proportion of housing built on green belt, has just 2.7 per cent of green belt development taken up by housing. A more analytical view of what constitutes green belt in order to free up land is urgently required.

Successive governments have, unsurprisingly, shied away from introducing reforms allowing more development of the green belt, seeing it as political suicide. However, when the zonal system was first proposed, Boris Johnson wrote that the proposals would signal "radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War." Following through on this would be a brave decision that would have truly helped address the housing crisis. But once again, it seems cold feet will prevail.

Clive Docwra is Managing Director of McBains, a property and construction consultancy
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