HOUSING AND PLANNING REFORM
Two bills announced in the Queen’s speech earlier this month will bring centralisation of government power in the areas of planning and housing.
The Planning Reform bill reveals the influence of corporate lobbyists on behalf of firms such as Tesco and McAlpine over government policy that should be concerned with citizenship and quality of life. Blair's dismantling of local planning under the 2004 act is clearly to be completed under Brown.
The bill speeds up the planning process by removing democratic space for objections. Under the new system, the government would issue national policy statements, some of which would identify major site-specific developments including motorways, airports and nuclear power stations which are considered to be in the national interest. A final decision on whether particular projects get the go ahead will be taken by a newly created and unelected body called the Infrastructure Planning Commission.
Out of town supermarkets are also deemed to be of similar national interest to national infrastructure projects, and benefit from similar relaxations of planning procedure. There is no national planning need for out-of-town hypermarkets, and an overwhelming climate change case against them.
The pattern of retailing is a local concern and, besides, to bias planning against low-carbon urban density and towards transport-rich dispersal is archaic and nonsensical.
The proposed bill would leave major planning decisions subject to no democratic institution at all. This is likely to have an adverse effect on communities, countryside, and the environment, and will leave concerned residents with no other recourse than litigation. Decisions will now pass from locally accountable planning committees to the courts, from those who care about the future of their communities to those who care about fees and lobbyists.
"[The bill’s] proposals will strip away one of the public’s key democratic rights to have a say on how their area is developed, easing the way for a whole range of climate-damaging developments", said Friends of the Earth’s planning coordinator, Naomi Luhde Thompson. According to legal opinion obtained by the campaigning group, the measures contained in the bill may be unlawful.
In a related move, the new Housing bill also announced in the Queen's speech will allow the creation of a new Housing and Regeneration Agency merging the Housing Corporation, which distributes funds to housing associations to build new social housing, and English Partnerships, which plans housing projects in new growth areas.
The bill includes a proposal to give public money to private developers. It is claimed that this last measure stems from ministers’ frustrations over housing association inefficiency in building new homes, while property developers are deemed to he more efficient and less corrupt.
However, private housing developers do have one primary responsibility; maximising profit for their shareholders. The measure largely correlates with the original fears voiced by national campaigning group Defend Council Housing, which suggested that Housing Associations would effectively kill off the prospects for new council housing in the long term.
The bills will make it easier for government to introduce new house-building and regeneration schemes such as Pathfinder. This scheme has demolished 10,200 properties and has 37,000 still scheduled to go. So far, although 40,000 homes have been refurbished, only 1,100 have been built, and a recent National Audit Office report raises questions about the £2.2 billion spent on the project.
In response to government plans, others have said that they would like to see the government introduce measures to reduce the amount of empty houses in the UK, estimated to total 670,000. Tim Dixon, professor of Real Estate at Oxford Brookes University, says this figure is equal to the size of a city such as Leeds.
– from Freedom, 17 November 2007