Robert Jenrick denies planning system overhaul which could lead to 'slum housing' is designed to 'help the big boys'

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has denied sweeping reforms to the planning system are designed to "help the big boys" after Labour said the move would help developers avoid contributing to local projects.

The government says its major overhaul of planning policy in England is designed to protect green spaces while making it easier to build on brownfield sites.

But Labour branded the move a "developer's charter that will see communities sidelined in decisions and denied vital funding for building schools, clinics and community infrastructure".

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) said there was “every chance" the proposals could also "lead to the creation of the next generation of slum housing”.

Under the proposals, developers will stop paying contributions to the local council for social housing and will instead pay a national infrastructure levy which the housing secretary says will "raise more money than the current levy".

Robert Jenrick. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Mr Jenrick said that cash will "all flow to the local council who will be able to spend it on affordable housing, social housing, as well as all the other things that people care about, like schools, GP surgeries, parks and playgrounds".

ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener asked Mr Jenrick why he wanted to replace the current community levy - which he allegedly allowed a housing developer to avoid paying into earlier this year.

Mr Jenrick approved an application by Tory donor Richard Desmond to build 1,500 flats in east London, one day before the current levy came into force, effectively saving the developer millions.

The decision was later reversed after legal action by Tower Hamlets Council and Mr Jenrick admitted what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.

Speaking to ITV News, Mr Jenrick insisted the new proposals "will mean that developers pay their fair share, they won't be able to wriggle out of their commitments and there won't be a lengthy debate about how much they need to pay".

At the suggestion that he "tried to help someone do exactly that, wriggle out of their commitments, Mr Jenrick said "absolutely not that's completely wrong".

He added: "These proposals do not help the big boys in this market, far from it. They help people get on the housing ladder for the first time, they enable more homes to be built in more parts of the country and more infrastructure to build public support for that housing."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his senior aide Dominic Cummings have both advocated reform to the system and the proposals in the Planning for the Future White Paper published on Thursday set out the Government’s vision.

Mr Johnson has defended the proposals, insisting they will result in more social housing being built.

During a visit to a housing development in Warrington, he told reporters: “What we’re doing is simplifying the process so you actually get much more affordable housing.

“This solution gives them (builders) a much simpler infrastructure levy that enables them to go ahead and build a much bigger chunk of affordable housing and help people onto the property ladder."

Part of the new process will involve quicker development on land which has been designated “for renewal”, with a “permission in principle” approach that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said will balance the need for proper checks with a speedier way of working.

The other two categories will see land designated for growth where new homes, hospitals and schools will be allowed automatically to empower development, while areas of outstanding natural beauty and the green belt will come under the protection category.

Mr Jenrick said it takes seven years to agree local housing plans and five years just to get a spade in the ground, and the proposed changes aim to speed up the process.

He added: “These once-in-a-generation reforms will lay the foundations for a brighter future, providing more homes for young people and creating better quality neighbourhoods and homes across the country.

“We will cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before.”

It also aims to boost the share of houses built by small and medium-sized building firms, which built 40% of new homes 30 years ago but only 12% today.

The White Paper proposes that all new streets should be tree-lined and the MHCLG also says “all new homes to be carbon neutral by 2050, with no new homes delivered under the new system needed to be retrofitted”.

With coronavirus continuing to cast a shadow of uncertainty over the economy, a more flexible planning system must give local authorities and businesses scope to deliver the homes people need

Matthew Fell, CBI

Councils will also be forced to lay out a “local plan” of where new homes can be built, as only 50% have such schemes in place.

The reforms aim to reduce the number of planning cases that get overturned at appeal by creating a “clearer, rules-based system”.

A new national levy would replace the current system of developer contributions and “beautiful buildings” will be fast-tracked through the planning system.

But RIBA President, Alan Jones, said: “While there’s no doubt the planning system needs reform, these shameful proposals do almost nothing to guarantee the delivery of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes.

“While they might help to ‘get Britain building’ – paired with the extension of permitted development – there’s every chance they could also lead to the creation of the next generation of slum housing.”

Shadow housing minister Mike Amesbury said: “This is a developer’s charter that will see communities sidelined in decisions and denied vital funding for building schools, clinics and community infrastructure.”

Tom Fyans, deputy chief executive of CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England), said: “The key acid test for the planning reforms is community involvement, and on first reading it’s still not clear how this will work under a zoning system.”

The Local Government Association’s chairman James Jamieson said nine in 10 applications are approved by councils with more than a million homes given planning permission over the last decade yet to be built and the system should focus on that.

“Any loss of local control over developments would be a concern,” the Tory council chief warned.

Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said the Government was proposing to scrap Section 106 agreements which can be used to require private developers to build a certain amount of social homes on a site.

“Any alternative to Section 106 must ensure we can deliver more high quality affordable homes to meet the huge demand across the country,” she said.

But Matthew Fell, CBI chief UK policy director, said the reforms “will allow housebuilders to get to work”.

And the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors welcomed the moves as a “big step in the right direction”.

Eugene Marchese, of retirement community developer Guild Living, said the Government's plans do not go far enough in addressing Britain's shortage of purpose-built housing for older people.

He said: “In the rush to build we must not forget the needs of people in later life, who face a worsening shortage of high-quality later living accommodation that can support their health and wellbeing, and provide them with tailored care, should they need it. 

“As the government consults on how local areas assess and plan to meet their housing needs, it is imperative that the needs of older people are not forgotten. With the right implementation, these reforms create a fantastic opportunity to repurpose town centre sites to create a new generation of retirement homes that restore people in later life to their rightful place at the heart of our communities.”

There were also concerns about the environmental measures contained within the proposals.

Nikki Williams, director of campaigning and policy at The Wildlife Trusts, said tree-lined streets are not enough.

She added: “Parks, green spaces and all the areas around our homes must be part of a wild network of nature-rich areas that will benefit bees and birds as much as it will enable people to connect with on-your-doorstep nature every single day.”

John Alker, director of policy and places at the UK Green Building Council, said they were “deeply concerned” by the 2050 target for carbon neutral homes.

“All new homes must rather be net zero carbon in operation by 2030 at the latest, in order to meet our national net zero target,” he said.