• Benjamin Woods: Rants & Other Ramblings Founder

The most important boring reform of the year

A look at a reform that unsurprisingly failed to grab the headlines in a year dominated by Covid & Brexit, yet a reform of vital importance nonetheless.

Its been a year since I cheered that exit poll at a counting centre in Swansea's LC2 leisure centre as Boris Johnson strode to victory. No one who cheered or buried their heads in their hands that day could have predicted what the new year would bring.

There have been reams of papers, whole volumes and libraries, books and journals, reports and investigations into the global pandemic that has shaken the world since February. And so I won't waste your time talking about a topic covered on every page of every newspaper and every bulletin for the last ten months. Instead, I'll focus on a piece of significant legislation brought in by the government but without much splash in the media.

Planning Reform. Okay I know sounds a bit, well Zzzzzzzz. No two words in the English language say skip to the end or go to sleep quite like the words "planning reform". But bear with me on this one because those two boring words are biggies. I don't say that only as a Masters student in Civil Engineering I say that as a young person who never expects to own their own home.

We have a chronic shortage of housing in this country. Everyone knows it, and for years most have been in favour of building more houses with just one caveat "NOT IN MY BACK YARD!!!" Delays and appeals mean currently only half of local areas have a plan to build more houses, and a third of planning cases that go to appeal are overturned. Or to put it more simply, an already broken system is buckling under the pressure.

The UK population is expected to reach 72.4 million by mid-2043. An increase of just under six million from today. At current rates we build around 150,000 new homes a year wich means by 2043 we will have built only 3.3 million around half of what we will need just to keep pace with our population.

In other words, if we doubled the rate we produce houses tomorrow by 2043 we would have only just about kept our heads above water. We would have succeeded in not making the housing crisis any worse, but we will not have made it any better either.

That is why its crucial to reform a system dreamt up in the aftermath of World War Two. It is why although planning reform is a by-word for boredom, it is vital. Vital so younger generations, myself included, and generations yet to come can own their own homes not only in their wildest dreams but in reality. We have made do with patching up our old and crumbling planning system for decades, but the time has come to rip it all out and start again from scratch.

So what are these changes that are proposed by the government? The long-awaited 'Planning for the Future' white paper (link below), sets out a vision going forward. It aims to cut the time for housing plans to be developed and agreed from 7 years to 2.5 years. They aim to hit this impressive target by overhauling the seemingly impregnable web of planning processes with a clear rules-based system twinned with a national levy to replace the current developer contribution system, notorious for its delays.

I referred earlier to the NIMBY brigade. There are, however, valid environmental and social concerns around reforming the planning system to speed up much-needed developments. However, while this reform cuts red tape streamlining the process, it's important it still maintains the high standards we all expect. Environmentally all new homes will have to meet an environmental status dubbed 'zero carbon ready' by the government. Essentially it means that these homes would not need retrofitting to achieve the UK's 2050 net-zero targets. The new planning regulations also involve local communities being consulted from the beginning in a modernised way. We are all used to posters on street lampposts and leaflets through surrounding letterboxes. However, as the year is now 2020 and not 1920, the system is being made digital using online 3D modelling, and dialogue between all parties involved. Finally, there are fewer restrictions on building on brownfield sites. This commitment will help protect our green spaces and reinvigorate our urban areas.

So do I believe these measures go fast and far enough? No. Do I believe planning reforms are the sole answer to the housing crisis? No. But nonetheless, is this reform a vital and critical step towards solving the UK's crisis? Yes.

Benjamin Woods

Founder of BW: Rants and Other Ramblings

MEng Civil Engineering Student

Government white paper: Planning for the Future


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