The Labour Party has been unable to prevent changes to planning laws in England despite urging Conservative MPs to vote against the government, after being defeated in three Commons votes.
Labour had accused the government of being culpable in creating the “slums of the future” by changing planning rules to allow developers to convert shops into homes without planning permission. Meanwhile, Teesside based property development company Mandale Group has been vocal in calls to streamline the planning system in general, while expressing concerns over the return of a market for new-build apartments in non-city areas and government policy on the leasehold and freehold relationship.
Housing minister Chris Pincher told the Commons that “radical reforms” to the planning system would be vital for the government’s agenda to “build and build and build” to help recover from the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Labour used the Commons debate to try to overturn the planning reforms that the government had announced before Parliament’s summer recess.
The new plans could see empty high street shops converted into housing, and up to two storeys could be added to blocks of flats without planning permission being required.
Labour shadow housing minister Mike Amesbury told MPs that thousands of people were being “crammed into former industrial and office premises that were not built for human habitation” with some having “no or few windows” and being “as small as 10 square metres” in size.
He accused the government of attempting to "create poor-quality housing by bypassing the local community, democracy and control by adding new units on top of flats, by allowing developers to demolish and rebuild empty buildings, and by allowing people to add multiple floors to their homes".
Conservative MPs have also raised concerns over the reforms, with Sir Peter Bottomley warning that leaseholders would be affected when extra floors were being added into buildings.
On the other hand, Sir Peter said that freeholders had been “given a gift of billions of pounds”.
He said: "If I were on the front bench my face would be red and I'd be standing up at the end of this debate to say, 'I apologise. I got it wrong.'"
The government did make a concession before the debate in that every home created under the scheme must have a minimum of 37 square metres of floor place, which is required of all homes that need planning permission.
However, Sir Peter’s fellow Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill felt the concession did not gar far enough in easing the pressure on suburban areas.
Pincher reassured that the planning reforms would “encourage owners and property developers to see the opportunities that already exist to increase housing delivery by more imaginative use of existing buildings”.
Emphasising the importance of removing “red tape” from the planning system, Pincher added: "We cannot simply sit back, as the opposition seems so fond of doing, and just wait. We have to be fiercely proactive in helping communities and developers bring forward these much-needed new homes through carefully controlled permitted development rights."
The issues over the relationship between leaseholders and freeholders highlighted by Sir Peter is one concern that Stockton-on-Tees property development company Mandale Group have held for some time, albeit in a slightly different context.
Writing in The Parliamentary Review, Mandale Group director Joe Darragh highlighted that government policy over the relationship between both parties required close consideration, after a market emerged for new-build apartments in non-city areas.
He said: “The return of a market for new-build apartments in non-city areas causes concern over government policy with regards to the leasehold and freehold relationship. The policy requires a lot of careful consideration and there is agreement throughout the industry that regulations over leasehold properties should be looked at and amended.”
However, not needing to acquire planning permission to carry out a conversion of existing shop builds does avoid running into some of the typical barriers of the planning framework.
Indeed, Mandale Group is one firm that has been vocal in calls for a more streamlined system on the whole, and reforms could do away with much of the existing “red tape” if Pincher’s words are to be believed.
Darragh highlighted that obtaining planning permission for new-build apartments in non-city areas typically takes less than three months, while for housing developments it can take years to obtain, rendering it difficult and sometimes impossible to plan and assign working capital.He said: "Establishing a streamlined planning system is crucial. Often, we are held up by local committees and politicians who want to avoid contentious decisions resulting in excessive delays, even on developments recommended for approval by local planning officers."
While a streamlined planning system will be vital for industry operators going forward, the government must ensure that those benefits do not come to the detriment of the quality of habitations and the wellbeing of those who live within them.