Local Planning Authorities across the country have spent decades determining which developments enhanced their towns and cities, and which threatened them. This process is handled by Town Planners, and in Planning committees, considering public objections and allowing transparent understanding of decision-making with input from local communities.
In Brighton and Hove, we have been clear about our concerns of the flaws in the existing Planning Policy Framework set by government, which presumes in favour of developments and makes it difficult to mandate genuinely affordable housing. But even within this constrained system, public engagement and transparency are both vital and possible.
However, in a recent move designed to pander to developers and investors, the government is driving a cart and horses through those determinations, leaving residents and our local areas at the mercy of the profit-motive; where what gets built suits financiers not flat-hunters, shareholders not shoppers.
Just when we need to be strengthening communities, defending the environment, and planning for our children’s futures; the new planning laws being rushed through by the government threaten our town centres, and our green spaces, and risk the creation of squalid slums for future generations.
At the end of this month, the law will change to allow extra storeys to be put on some buildings; with other buildings being knocked down and replaced; crucially all without the need for specific permission. These new dwellings will not have to adhere to the government’s own “Nationally Described Space Standards,” which were designed to ensure a minimum basic standard of accommodation for everyone. This is the difference between providing people with the space to ensure basic needs, like hanging washing or eating a meal, can be met – and expecting them to pay through the nose for barely habitable, constricted living spaces.
Perhaps even more worrying, the government is proposing sweeping changes to “use classes.” Use classes help to define what a property may be used for. This may not sound like much, but what it means in effect is that town planning, which has prevented many town centres from disappearing over the last few decades, will now no longer be able to do so. Rather than letting Local Planning Authorities decide whether to let a shop become a café, for example, such changes will no longer need permission. This despite the fact that campaigns to change use classes to support local communities have been vocal around the issue of AirBnB – where communities need more support to stop a plethora of houses in their neighbourhoods becoming short-term holiday lets.
Unlike many towns and cities across the country, Brighton and Hove are fortunate in that we have numerous thriving retail centres. Previously, town planners were able to ensure that things remained that way. However, after this law-change, any temporary downturn in retail performance could now threaten the survival of our unique shopping areas, with the financial might of national and international chains forcing local independent traders out of parts of the city they’ve been operating in for years.
Even more radical proposals are in the pipeline.
The government is planning to increase the maximum number of houses in a development before any affordable housing is required, from 10 to 40 or even 50.
The government is also planning to force all local councils to designate land as one of three categories: for growth, renewal, or protection. New developments will be granted automatic permission on growth land, while renewal areas will see developments given permission in principle. Only areas given the protection status will not have automatic building rights attached.
Government has argued that local planning structures are a ‘barrier to building.’ However, evidence shows councils are approving nine out of every 10 planning applications. Planning laws have long needed reform to hand more power to communities, not developers. Now we face a change that could take away the limited powers we already have to serve communities, we urge councillors of all political parties and none, to join us in objecting to these damaging proposals.
Leo Littman is a Green Party Councillor for Brighton and Hove's Preston Park ward.