Opinion: Planning rules

Those of you who have worked your way through the conference agenda and Conference Extra will by now have reached the emergency motions (page 28, since you ask) and will notice that there are four in the ballot: banks are awful, Julian Assange is awful, teacher qualifications are under threat and ‘what have you done with our planning system?’

I paraphrase unfairly, of course. All tastes are clearly catered for and you can make your own mind up about which to vote for if you are at conference.

The planning one (which I have something to do with) is a mild rebuke to government and unusual because ALDC, its sponsor, rarely uses its rights to propose motions. Its mild tone perhaps masks the considerable anger at grass roots level: on 6 September the Government made various announcements about relaxing planning rules, claiming that these will help kickstart the economy. In summary these are
• agreements between local authorities and developers over affordable housing can be renegotiated if the agreement threatens the viability of the scheme
• councils which are poor performers in planning terms may lose their rights to determine planning applications.
• there will be consultation on a temporary (3 year) relaxation of the planning rules governing rear extensions, allowing in some cases extensions of 8 metres in length to be erected without planning permission.

I will spare you the full details.

There are two main points of objection. One is the matter of principle: planning is a local matter and should be determined locally without Government interfering either positively or negatively. That principle is breached as often as it is honoured, however, as you can see from the amount of national ‘guidance’ issued over the years, the various legislative interferences by successive governments and the very concept of the planning inspectorate.

The second is whether there is a benefit in economic terms. The Chairman of the Local Government Association, a practising Conservative, said: ‘Local authorities are overwhelmingly saying “yes” to new development. There are enough approvals in the system for 400,000 new homes.’ And the House Builders Federation has said the real problem is lack of demand, not least a shortage of affordable mortgages.

Moreover, it beggars belief that a surge in large extensions will do much to stimulate the local economy – although it may do a lot to ruin relations between neighbours.

The whole thing smacks of fag packet policy-making. There are rumours that Tory ministers in fact wanted something far worse but that the Lib Dems restrained them. If so, good, although nobody is going to remember this when gathering signatures (fruitlessly under the new rules) against Mrs Miggins’s massive 8 metre conservatory in Acacia Avenue.

Interestingly the Daily Telegraph has noticed the motion and Conservative Home wrote a disobliging piece about it (anyone would think they didn’t like us). Those Conservatives who commented on the piece, however, largely supported the ALDC motion.

Strange bedfellows indeed.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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This entry was posted in Conference, Local government, News and Op-eds.


  • “Emergency”

  • David Allen 21st Sep '12 - 1:29pm

    Well said indeed. Two additional points:

    The silver lining with issues like tuition fees, NHS, Osbornomics etc is that we are alienating the same people each time, and you can’t lose the same vote more than once. But now we are after a brand new market, the people who live next to those who want to build monstrosities that stare into their neighbours’ faces. We have found a whole new constituency of voters to lose!

    Also – When people build extensions, it is often an alternative to moving. When people move, they creat a demand for a whole new house, not just a conservatory. It could well be, therefore, that this proposal will reduce rather than increase the overall demand for building work.

  • Richard Harris 21st Sep '12 - 3:07pm

    What on earth were the people responsible thinking when they came up with a “3 year” window in which people could effectively bypass planning regulations. I just don’t get it. Surely the point of planning is that its not a temporary thing. Imagine what our townscapes would be like if every 5 years we had a year with no planning? It would make the years with planning utterly redundant. What about those people that have just built a 3m extension safe in the knowledge that their neighbour would never be able to extend beyond it, to find out that now they can and nobody can object? Lib Dems, disassociate yourself with policy this bad or you’ll be a laughing stock.

  • Tom,

    >Building is a very labour intensive industry.
    It may be but remember 2008~09 when we went into the current downturn in house building, there was very little impact on the unemployment figures because over the years the building industry had increased it’s use of (dependence on?) non-UK resident labour. So when the downturn came, the majority returned to their homes abroad… So unless there are conditions placed upon the building industry, a significant number of the circa 1 million jobs will go to non-UK residents. Additionally, these jobs will do little to improve our exports and balance of trade, nor will there be many graduate jobs …

    >the UK converted just 3% of its farms to other uses
    This misses the real world facts of the problem, remember we’ve been building new towns and houses on farm land for decades but still people prefer to live within the existing towns and cities such as London. It is also a very expensive way of providing housing as it also incurs a significant infrastructure requirement, whereas increasing the density of our cities requires little new infrastructure and brings with it efficiencies of scale.

    It also misses a rather more important point, namely we already import more than 51% of our food, if we are serious (and we need to be) about building a sustainable society and low carbon economy (a large proportion of this food is brought in by air) with a secure food supply then we need those farms to be producing food…

    So the argument put by the pamphlet you reference , that rents ‘could’ fall by 10% is a red herring, unless you happen to be measuring rents in poorer areas that loose out to the new build…

    >GDP will rise by 5%
    All sounds very good until you crunch the numbers and realise that the figures show that at current levels of house building, each individual property has a significantly great er impact on GDP than if we were to build significantly more houses, which would indicate that our resources are better spent elsewhere.

  • Chris White 22nd Sep '12 - 8:30am


    We do indeed need some bold measures. What would you say to redefining the definition of commencing construction so that it had to be substantial (defined in some measurable way) rather than just digging a hole and leaving it? This could have the effect of forcing developers to get on with existing planning permissions for fear of losing them.

  • Chris White 22nd Sep '12 - 8:31am


    Isn’t it generally accepted that cities are relatively efficient means of providing housing and employment?

  • David Parry 22nd Sep '12 - 4:31pm

    As a Lib Dem and someone professionally involved with the planning system, my heart sinks at yet another attempt to make significant alterations to our environment or economy through the planning system, by those who do not realise that, to a large extent it doesn’t work, often actually having completly the opposite effect to that what is intended. Indeed the very word ‘planning’ has become debased by the system of development control we have created.

    A salutory example from a Lib-Dem Authority Chris knows well (Not his home town!) The Council notes that there is a worsening shortage of affordable housing so introduce a policy that all new developments must have 49% affordable housing, with a threshold of just 2 units.

    My client has a block of 30 small flats, all of which he rents out. He had bought the house next door with a view of knocking it down to provide 8 more flats but to effectively ‘give away’ the land value of 4 units means it is not viable.

    His choices are to do nothing, or, a clever idea this, he applies for extensions to make each of the existing flats on the end of the block, 6 bedroom units, builds them out, omits one basic amenity, and rents each of the rooms out as part of a House in Multiple Occupation, for which there is no planning requirement.

    Result is that either the Authority do not get any of the much needed units at all, or what is built is not up to the standard they would wish and they have no access to, to help with their waiting list. The ultimate irony is that although the developer is a private individual, the existing flats are rented out at only about 5-10% above what they would be as supposedly social housing.

    I personally feel that our Planing System has got into such a mess, we need to go back to a much more fundamental analysis at to what we want it to achieve. It is not the right tool to try to do all the things we are asking of it, and as such is in danger of doing nothing positive at all.

  • Chris
    I think Tom and others who promote the building on greenfield and ‘brownfield’ sites and farm land don’t accept the evidence about the efficiencies of cities. As I’ve mentioned on other blogs, London’s population density is about half that of Paris, which in turn is less than Manhattan and Tokyo …

  • David Parry,

    The tax system, planning system or administrative system that has no snags and always achieves what it was designed to do has not been invented. If we scrap all taxation and administrative systems that we find snags with, we’ll have nothing left!

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