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28/09/2020

Planning is complex by definition - so how can 'simplification' work?

Efforts to simplify the planning system to speed up housebuilding are almost certainly doomed to failure, says Griff Rhys Jones. Planning is complicated, whether you like it or not - and it's not the real cause of expensive, poor quality houses, either

Here we go again. Nobody seems to be looking forward to ‘simplification’ of the planning system, because everybody knows that planning is complicated – by definition. One size rarely fits all.

I have been offering succour to friends whose grade II* setting is threatened by yet another application to whizz up some rotting barns alongside them with a housing development. It has been turned down once. The current planning system allows the determined to bang on ceaselessly. My friends have to prepare themselves for years of fighting, or give way to inappropriate development.

But we need houses. I am a developer, too, and about to refurbish a disused site in fashionable Borough, London. To achieve a few flats and office space, I have started to organise my cohorts: lawyers at £450 an hour, ‘rights to light’ consultants, planning consultants, party wall advisers, valuers, surveyors.

None of these expensive signings seem worried by the prospective changes. They know that the process of building will continue to suck in an army of hugely expensive advisers who will add cost before a single brick is laid. And people wonder at the price of houses.

“Everybody knows that planning is complicated – by definition. One size rarely fits all”

A government wants to simplify. I doubt they will achieve what they think they want. I was once told by a doctor that changes to the way people paid for medicines or the NHS did have an effect. The poor who really needed help missed out more; those who cheated still got what they wanted.

That will be true of this new one-size-fits-all proposal. There will be heart-breaking horrors perpetrated by those close to breaking the law anyway: greedy landlords forcing rabbit hutches into shops, ignoring building regs and threatening councils with appeals that they can’t afford to fight. And the law-abiding developer will still be struggling through miles of red tape.

All that time spent on developing citizen awareness and trying to involve people in their own localities is going to be thrown away. The free-for-all areas won’t take account of the successful existing heritage within them; the strict conservation areas will stop development where it is needed.

I have built in central London and in national parks. I would love to spend less time fussing about, say, bats. But I am also aware as I struggle to comply that the system is already allowing the less scrupulous to throw up horrors all around me. Is this initiative really going to sort out the real expense of building houses? Or make those houses any good? Planning is really not even half of that.

Griff Rhys Jones is a broadcaster, developer and president of Civic Voice


Read more: 

The people's advocate: An interview with Griff Rhys Jones


Image credit | Shutterstock | Pal Hansen

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