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Planning reform must give local communities greater control over what is built in their neighbourhood

(Keith Shuttlewood / Alamy Stock Photo)

3 min read

Few subjects cause as much friction between front and back benches as planning and housing targets.

We are united in wanting to deliver the right homes in the right places, but sometimes sharply divided on how best to do that. 

Tension has been growing for years on this issue (I recall debating it at length with George Osborne in the 2005 to 2010 parliament) with ever increasing pressure on councils to allow development to go ahead in locations, and at densities, which would never have been tolerated in the past. In some areas, this has led to loss of precious greenfield and green belt land. 

The row intensified in 2020 when Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary at the time, published plans for growth zones in which building could take place without a planning application, cutting local people out of the decision-making process altogether. Even worse, a new method of calculating housing need was proposed which would push up already substantial targets for delivering new housing to sky high levels. 

Retreat followed. The so-called “mutant algorithm” hiking up targets was dropped, and the growth zone idea later bit the dust as well after Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Levelling Up in 2021. 

But while two important battles had been won, the conflict was by no means over. Emerging from the debates over the mutant algorithm was the Planning Concern WhatsApp group established by me and Bob Seely. A significant number of colleagues signed up and we held a series of meetings with Michael Gove and others to make the case for restoration of local decision-making in planning. 

This culminated in New Clause 21 (NC21) which Bob Seely, Greg Smith and I tabled to the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill to scrap the top-down targets which were making it harder and harder for councils to turn down bad development proposals. 

This was backed by 60 MPs, and in response, the secretary of state brought forward significant concessions to rebalance the planning system to give local communities greater control over what is built in their neighbourhood. That includes confirming that centrally determined housing targets are advisory not mandatory. They are a starting point, not an inevitable outcome. Changes have been promised to make it easier for councils to set a lower target where delivering the top-down one would, for example, require building at densities which would involve a significant change in character of the area.  

This is welcome, but the extent to which it delivers real change depends on how it is implemented by the consultation which has recently been run on amending the National Planning Policy Framework.

There are also continuing concerns over provisions in the Levelling Up Bill to allow the creation of national development management policies which would take precedence over local development management policies. These latter rules, a core element of our planning system for many years, are set locally and provide a bulwark of defence against overdevelopment, protecting greenfield sites and open space, constraining height and preventing loss of family homes to blocks of flats. Centralising control over all those policies could be deeply problematic. 

Finally, there is an urgent need to curb the power of the Mayor of London to impose excessive targets on the boroughs. He has used the London Plan to try to load additional housing delivery obligations on to outer London, creating intolerable pressure for tower blocks in low-rise suburban areas. 

Crucial progress has been made as a result of the discussions between ministers and back benchers on amendment NC21 to the Levelling Up Bill, but there is still some way to go before we have the planning system we need to properly protect the environment and quality of life of constituents. 

Theresa Villiers is Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet 

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