Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2020 - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:27 pm on 27th October 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat 2:27 pm, 27th October 2020

I am delighted to be sharing the Chamber today with our two new Members, who are clearly going to bring to it the considerable expertise for which we are known and renowned—but, I expect, from very different perspectives.

My noble friend Lord German was right to table his Motion as it seems there is much disquiet about these and previous SIs, as well as the proposals in the Government’s current White Paper. Our concern is that taken together these constitute, in the words of a government Minister, the most significant changes to the planning system in 20 years and, in the words of another, a complete overhaul of the planning system. Thus, we feel there has not been sufficient consultation, or opportunities to really know and understand the cumulative impact of the Government’s legislative changes.

I too question the premise on which the current policy direction appears to be based: that the underdelivery of homes is largely the fault of the planning system. It has been mentioned many times in this Chamber that 90% of permissions are actually granted and that close to a million permissions have still not been built out. I wonder if there is something in the Government’s new proposal to take care of that, but I do not believe there is. The Letwin report also made it clear that the financial model on which the construction industry is based is far more significant in affecting the actual delivery of homes. I hope that we can have another debate on this issue, as in my experience it is a very complex one and government agencies also play their part in planning delays.

Permitted development rights were rightly introduced to reduce bureaucracy in specific and clearly understood circumstances, but these SIs drive a coach and horses through the normal system of judging and determining a proposed development. Together, the changes represent a significant shift in control away from local authorities and the communities they represent towards a significantly less regulated environment. I believe that nationally prescribed development rights disempower communities and local councils. Is it too cynical of me to suggest that that is the intention?

It is also clear that the Government’s current White Paper foreshadows the possibility of further changes to the entire planning system over the coming months, and it may well be that further permitted development reforms follow. This is perhaps why there is considerable disquiet and concern in many quarters. Alan Jones, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, said of the Government that the arrogance and lack of understanding was “breathtaking.”

It is not just RIBA that thinks the extensions to permitted development are a bad idea. They are opposed by the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Chartered Institute of Building, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Town and Country Planning Association, and more. Uniting all of these organisations, which are far from always being in happy harmony, is a remarkable achievement and a sign of the real problems of this approach that need to be looked into. Apart from those who seek to make serious money from these changes, it is hard to see who supports them.

The reputable planning consultancy, Lichfields, has stated that the changes are very significant, but are only the tip of the iceberg for potential planning changes on the immediate horizon. Hence the collective concern that the Government have failed to allow adequate time and scrutiny for these SIs and we have had no concrete reassurances as to how they will be evaluated in their totality. That is a concern which appears to be justified when you consider that the Government’s independently commissioned work on permitted development rights was damning. The report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s notes that permitted development rights for office-to-residential change of use has led to much criticism for diminishing quality, delivering lower levels of affordable housing and reducing developer contributions. Those are three key issues. The Commission concludes that PDRs

“have inadvertently permissioned future slums … allowing sub-standard homes to be built with little to no natural light and smaller than budget hotel rooms.”

Can the Minister offer any serious reassurance that these concerns have been addressed?

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee produced a report in 2019 on the future of the high street which said:

“The Government should suspend any further extension of PDRs, pending an evaluation of their impact on the high street.”

Yet in these SIs we see significant changes to class uses that we have heard little about but which I have no doubt will have some concerns.

Do the Government intend to do a cumulative impact assessment of these and other recent SIs in tandem with the current proposals in the pipeline? If not, why not, and if yes, whoopie, but when?