Planning reform must protect green spaces, not give a blank cheque to developers
Our planning system is not perfect, but it has offered some protection to green, open space and given local communities a voice in what is built in their neighbourhoods, writes Caroline Lucas MP. | PA Images
If Robert Jenrick gets his way with planning system reform, land designated for growth, renewal or protection will be swept away and replaced with urban sprawl.
One of the most valuable lessons we have learned during Covid is the importance to our health and wellbeing of green, open space.
That’s a lesson which seems to have completely bypassed the Housing Minister, Robert Jenrick, whose disastrous proposals on planning effectively give the green light to developers to build whatever and wherever they want, with elected local councillors powerless to control it.
Jenrick says his reform (in effect, abolition) of what he dismisses as an out-dated planning system is necessary so “people can get going”.
Our planning system is not perfect, but it has offered some protection to green, open space and given local communities a voice in what is built in their neighbourhoods. If Jenrick gets his way, with all land in England zoned and designated for growth, renewal or protection, this will be swept away and we will be left with urban sprawl.
He says he is cutting red tape, but not standards.
That red tape is already shredded, with permitted development rights extended under the coalition government to allow developers to convert offices to homes – a policy which has resulted in far too many poor quality, cramped homes, far from public transport, shops, schools or other facilities.
One development in Watford didn’t even have windows. No wonder the Raynsford Review of Planning earlier this year said the conversions were leading to 21st century slums.
Those who can’t, or don’t want to, buy their own home are being hung out to dry and the million households on social housing waiting lists are being abandoned.
So when Jenrick talks about “breathing new life into vacant commercial properties and industrial spaces … transforming them into new homes”, we’ve a clear idea of what we will end up with and it won’t be decent affordable homes, let alone social housing.
The requirement for developers to build them (Section 106) is being abandoned. Those who can’t, or don’t want to, buy their own home are being hung out to dry and the million households on social housing waiting lists are being abandoned.
Jenrick’s proposals are scattered with words like “valued green spaces” and “sustainable homes”.
But a system which grants automatic planning permission for a particular type of building within the designated zone is highly unlikely to result in buildings which both stop contributing to the climate crisis and are resilient to its impacts.
Sustainability means more than proper insulation (vital though that is). The Government’s “garden communities” were presented as a sustainable approach to the housing crisis, yet most of the developments have poor public transport and will lead to hundreds of thousands of car-dependent homes.
The National Planning Policy Framework, issued early last year, called for “high-quality open space” and the need to “plan positively for the provision and use of shared spaces” – prescient recommendations given the Coronavirus crisis. There should be a right of access to green, open space in areas where people live. A tree-lined street is no substitute.
There is already huge inequality in access to parks and other open space, with people in richer local authorities more likely to have their own garden AND access to a park.
In London, for example, 35% of the wealthiest areas are made up of green open space, compared to only 25% of the most deprived. And 2.6 million people in the UK have no publicly accessible green space within a short walk of their home.
Protecting national parks, the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty is important, but people living in cramped homes, in densely built-up areas, need green space near their homes, not in a national park three hours’ drive away.
We face not only a climate emergency, but a biodiversity crisis and a pandemic which is likely to be with us for some time.
More green space for nature and wildlife is vital in how we address all three crises. That should be the starting point for any reform of the planning system, not a blank cheque for developers who, left unchecked and on past experience, are unlikely to deliver the homes or communities we need.
Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavillion.