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Planning reform and densification will help our cities thrive


4 min read

It is becoming increasingly clear that Britain’s housing supply crisis is a direct consequence of our restrictive planning system.

The green belt, just like every other government policy that dates back almost 100 years, will need to be reviewed and changed. While truly green areas of the green belt play a vital role in improving the living standards of those living in urban areas, there are parts which are not ‘green’ at all. Instead, disused industrial sites, car parks and derelict warehouses now occupy space where families could grow, and communities thrive.

We must be aware of shallow promises. A ‘grey belt first’ policy, which will involve building on these disused areas, will not solve the housing crisis alone and it may even become a grey belt only policy.

Developers should be made directly responsible for consulting the local community about their needs

Riding roughshod over residents who have genuine concerns about the impacts of new development on their local area and infrastructure may unintentionally increase hostility to building the homes we need. Balance is everything. We need the right homes in the right places. 

Conservatives have always been clear that establishing community support must play a role in the housebuilding process. This could be achieved through giving a proportion of the profits from development on the metropolitan green belt, in the form of shares, to local landowners and residents. 

We should look, too, at making reforms to Section 106 – the legal obligation for developers to provide certain affordable housing and infrastructure targets. Rather than making Section 106 the purview of Westminster, further relegating it to political whims, developers should be made directly responsible for consulting the local community about their needs. Developers would be able to create tailored public infrastructure packages, increasing local support for new development in the process. The current system sometimes means that proposals with genuine local support are not taken forward as the local authority has other priorities which don’t match those of the residents in the local area to the development. This leads to animosity and anger at developers and developments, unnecessarily. 

A sole focus on building out into the new ‘grey belt’ and on new towns also ignores one of the most sustainable forms of development: densification. 

Building upwards offers a host of economic, environmental and social opportunities. Building homes close to existing, rather than brand new, infrastructure is less expensive and money can instead be spent on ameliorating and expanding local public services, revitalising local high streets. This will improve the social welfare of existing residents as well as new homeowners. 

Densifying local areas can also be a huge economic boon – businesses can thrive on the ground floor of new apartment buildings. We only have to look at the new developments in Victoria, or the hugely successful Battersea Power Station and its thriving offices, apartments and retail opportunities.

And it can ensure that the future of our cities is a sustainable one. Carbon emissions for every square metre of development can be significantly reduced compared to ten years ago by taking advantage of better technologies – from improved insulation and triple glazing, to new local heatworks.

This is why the government was right to press ahead with ‘street votes’ as part of the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Act 2023. By enabling residents to vote for greater densification, increasing their property value in the process and allowing them to set design rules in keeping with the street they live on, it recognises the importance of community support. It is a structure that many developers would be happy to work with. The key for most developers is a logical and stable process. 

There are no silver bullets in politics, especially not in a policy area as complicated as housing and infrastructure development. We should be advocating for vital, innovative planning reform and densification, ensuring we build more homes that we desperately need to allow people to realise their dream of home ownership. 


Brandon Lewis, Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth and patron of the Adam Smith Institute

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