We all know the economy has taken a terrible knock from the pandemic. But when the Prime Minister said “build, build, build”, this set off alarm bells.
Now, massive deregulation of the planning system has been announced, and a switch to zones available for development.
So why should we be very worried by this unchained development designed to liberate builders?
The post-war planning system created in 1947 was a model for the world in many ways. At the time planning, or development control, was designed to enable the post-war development and reconstruction that was badly needed. But decades, later we have got a country and city with vast amounts of development underway, and a heavy pressure on the council to find every last corner of the city where extra housing can be built.
Of course we do need more housing, especially social housing that’s managed well and meets the desperate need for low cost homes. The local plan process is strongly directed to search for more housing land, but the old local plan has run out and a plan will not be in place until 2023.
This matters because without current policies, applicants can already say there aren’t proper sites or policies and they can develop with much less control. We know we need better policies to make the city fit for the future and have already made many suggestions. Without policies, we can’t say what meets the agreed local priorities.
Meanwhile, the decade of austerity cuts have left a weakened development control system, slimmed-down policies from government, and committee reports heavily weighted to granting planning permission for any reasonable developments.
This is already controversial with residents when compromises are made. I saw this first hand when I was the chair of a development control committee – there’s a high risk of legal costs against the council if a developer challenges ‘refusal’ by the committee without really cast iron grounds for rejection. And neither councillors nor communities would have a say any longer.
So what about the rise of ‘permitted development’? For a few years, this just allowed small extensions and some solar panels without the rigmarole of planning applications. But latterly, whole office blocks can be turned into flats with no need to get detailed permission, or shops have been turned into cafes. The result is hundreds of new flats that don’t have to meet standards for space, light, fresh air, or location. This also means developers dodge their responsibility for contributing to local infrastructure budgets which normally fund things to benefit the community like road safety measures or road crossings.
The deregulation announcement flies in the face of research by the ministry, which points out there are now flats with no windows in living space, blocks in the middle of business parks, and developments that don’t fit in to their neighbourhoods.
There are also weak grounds for claiming this deregulation frees up a sector trapped by red tape. Something like a million houses have planning permission but haven’t been built, a pattern that we see locally where quite a few developments never actually happen, yet we’re forced to find ever more space in the city for housing.
This risks cramming the city, clearing away trading sites used by local businesses, or threatening undeveloped land needed for wildlife and food, which we know from the lockdown is ever more vital for our health and wellbeing.
There’s a good case for innovation in housing to create more and better homes, such as the community-led housing sites now identified in the city, and the support for energy-saving homes and better regulated HMOs. But the government doesn’t want us to have a say over controls like this. They now want simplified zones for ‘growth’ where permission is taken as read, or ‘renewal’ where everything is simplified.
And there may be dramatic changes to how we manage development in the city as we emerge from lockdown. Virtual working and appreciation of vital green space, allotments and gardens mean we need to stop and reflect on the future city shape.
New direction from government does at last give walking and cycling the priority needed for healthy travel.
But none of that gives any justification for letting development rip across the city as the consultation would allow.
Deregulation is bad for democracy if there’s no right to comment. It’s bad for communities if no facilities or low cost housing get funded. It’s bad for the environment if local climate policies are not applicable and green space gets targeted. And it’s bad for people if quality and space standards get scrapped.
We are about to review Bristol’s plan to help make the city fit for the future. Being allowed to tear down empty buildings without a local debate about how to repurpose them is destructive and wasteful. Adding two extra floors to homes could be a recipe for neighbour disputes.
The climate and ecological emergencies have not gone away. We still need developers to pay heed to the issues we have put in the plan, respect the character of our neighbourhoods, and pay their share of the costs they impose on communities. These government proposals fly in the face of all that.
Martin Fodor is a Green councillor for Redland
Main photo by Ellie Pipe