In August 2020, the Government announced significant reforms to the planning system, through the publication of its 'Planning for the Future' whitepaper.
Firstly, I should say that I share the anxieties that many constituents have expressed about the implications of these reforms for areas like Somerton and Frome – which have too often suffered from tendentious and predatory applications by opportunistic developers. I do believe our planning system is in desperate need of reform, but I cannot fully endorse the proposals which have been put forward. Having made representations on behalf of a number of towns and villages across the constituency to amplify their voices during the planning process, I worry that protecting the character of our precious communities will become even more difficult.
Of course, there’s a historic shortfall of housing stock, with an overall deficit running into the hundreds of thousands. By the age of 30, those born between 1981 and 2000 are half as likely to be homeowners as those born between 1946 and 1965. It’s clear that too many young people are being locked out from the benefits of homeownership. I believe that everyone deserves a place to call their own – a place for families to raise children and build their lives – and, as such, I very much welcome efforts to make homeownership accessible to even more people. Our current planning system has too much bureaucracy, too little engagement with local communities, and too much advantage is afforded to large property developers to the detriment of local businesses, and our town and village communities.
I believe the way to address the housing shortage is through developing brownfield sites and easing the process determining change of use designations rather than through giving an automatic, zoned presumption in favour of development and removing the current mechanisms for democratic oversight. Of course, there are some safeguards promised (for example, a pledge that local communities will have their “voices heard”), but such commitments do require more in-depth scrutiny. Local authorities must have more control over how many homes can be built in local areas. I am relieved that, following pressure from me and a number of other MPs, the Government has changed its approach to the new standard method on housing need and is retaining the existing method with an improved focus on urban centres. This makes better use of available infrastructure and brownfield sites without encroaching on greenfield sites or our countryside.
I’ve also made it clear to the Government that there needs to be greater clarity in the three land categories being proposed, with stronger safeguards against unwanted development. I do believe that the ‘permission in principle’ approach must be improved with a final say from our local planning authorities to ensure we can protect our communities.
Along with other MPs, I have previously written to the Housing Secretary to make my reservations clear and this has successfully led to changes being made in the Government’s plans. Now that the Planning Bill has been published, I will of course be scrutinising this Bill as it makes its way through the House of Commons. At the heart of planning are the homes we live, the schools for our children, and the glorious countryside which makes Somerset so special – what could be more important?
I will be monitoring the progress of these reforms and taking every opportunity to articulate the important reservations that I’ve described.