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Betts hits out at lack of detail in government planning proposals

Words: Huw Morris
Clive Betts

The chair of the Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has lambasted the government for failing to give enough details of how its forthcoming planning reforms will work in practice.

Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East, said the government’s white paper was more a green paper with its level of detail and called for draft legislation to encourage further debate. He also doubted whether the government could fulfil its commitment to unveil legislation in the autumn as it had yet to formally publish its response to consultation on the white paper.

“The next stage should not be a full-blown planning bill and instead we ought to see a draft bill that would attract comment and see what needed changing,” he told a Civic Voice online event this morning (Tuesday 20 July).

The lack of detail meant the “biggest gainers” from the proposals would be “planning lawyers and QCs who will have to sort this out”.

Betts pointed to government proposals to introduce design codes as a particular area where the government has yet to offer crucial details.

“We all agree design needs to improve and resistance to development is often down to this but I’m not sure what the government means by a design code. Is it going to be influenced on high and set by the government? Will you have a design code for every single site when how you develop an industrial site is different from a village, a waterfront or riverside?

“How far will these design codes be a straitjacket? We don’t know.

“Improving design is admirable, but in practice the detail of how you apply design codes on individual sites is vague.”

Betts acknowledged that current local plans are “so convoluted and cumbersome that the only people who are engaged are developers who want to change the system and get more houses built”. But if the government put more emphasis on the local plan process and encouraged more of the public to be involved, there would be more support for development and “you will take as many people with you as possible”.

He added: “Look at how few people are engaged in local plans. We can all improve that – not just the government but councils and MPs as well.”

Although Betts agreed with the government’s target of 300,000 homes a year, he said this would be unachievable without 100,000 of them built by councils and housing associations. This would mean the government increasing social housing grant to £10 billion a year.

Betts, who has chaired the committee in its various incarnations since 2010 and seen nine planning ministers serve in that time, wondered if there would be any bets on how many others would be in office before the end of the parliamentary session. A key problem is that every minister realises he or she will not be in the post for long “so they go for a big announcement rather than go for steady improvement and make smaller changes”. Instead, ministers should look at “what has worked and what has done harm” with earlier reforms.

“The government needs to do a detailed impact assessment before making major changes. There needs to be more careful consideration rather than just say we have this brilliant idea, let’s implement it.”