With close to 10,000 households on Lewisham’s housing waiting list, our borough has been at the sharp end of the UK’s housing crisis.
Many constituents have been waiting years to secure new housing.
At the same time, I am conscious that this is a political crisis, driven by drastic cuts to local authorities.
My colleagues at Lewisham council are desperate to deliver social housing to all those who need it, but 10 years of Tory governance has seen their capacity diminish along with their budget.
The Government’s new White Paper on the planning system will do little to remedy this crisis. Entitled “Planning for the Future”, the document is, as Keir Starmer put it, a ‘developer’s charter’.
It will enshrine into law a system based on centralised government targets rather than local demand, with scant regard for either the quality of the housing or the wider environment.
The White Paper proposes separating land into three categories – Protection, Renewal, and Growth. On land designated as part of a growth zone, planning permission for houses, schools, and hospitals will be granted nearly automatically. The Government has presented this as a way of cutting red tape, simplifying the planning process, and speeding up the delivery of new homes.
In reality, it places quality as the price of efficiency. As Alan Jones, President of Royal Institute of British Architects has warned, the introduction of near-automatic approval risks creating a new generation of slum housing. Without the ability to review individual cases and deny permission based on design, councils will be reduced to frustrated bystanders in the planning process.
I am acutely aware of the problems caused by substandard housing.
The new system will only exacerbate these problems. The Government’s plans do little to address the existential challenge of climate change. As the Centre for Sustainable Energy has pointed out, the White Paper says nothing about how the system will integrate national climate targets with local planning decisions.
Nor have the Government allayed fears, raised by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, about the impact these reforms will have on access to green spaces.
The most alarming aspect of the White Paper, is its reckless attack on existing safeguards and rules on affordable housing. Central to this is the plan to scrap Section 106 agreements – binding agreements attached to the land, through which councils can obtain concessions from developers who wish to build there.
The White Paper proposes to do away with the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), a charge which allows councils to raise money from developers in order to fund vital infrastructure projects such as transport services or schools.
By scrapping these mechanisms, the Government has signalled that these plans are more about giving free rein to developers than building the affordable, energy-efficient homes our communities desperately need.
If the Government truly wanted to solve the housing crisis, they could begin by listening to local authorities themselves. They could heed the advice of the LGA, which recommended building 100,000 social homes a year.
In Lewisham, the effect of such a programme would be transformational. Under the new system, things are only likely to get worse.
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