National planning reform opens Wokingham borough to more housing development, warn councillors

Picture: Jess Warren

The radical reform hopes to throw away the ‘archaic’ planning system, and ‘cut red tape’

COUNCILLORS across the borough are concerned that a naked protest will do little to stop housing development under the housing secretary’s latest plans.

On Sunday, Robert Jenrick announced a “once in a generation reform” to the planning process, which would give automatic permission to homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices.

The announcement was made in The Sunday Telegraph, where Mr Jenrick explained that land across the UK would be designated into three zones; growth, renewal and protection.

Build, build, build

Mr Jenrick said the new system would help developers to “build, build, build” affordable homes for 16- to 34-year-olds who have been unable to climb onto the property ladder due to rising prices.

Cllr John Kaiser, deputy leader of the council and executive member for housing and finance, said Mr Jenrick was floating the idea to see the public response, before following-up with information about the intricacies of the plan.

He told Wokingham.Today: “We don’t know how the system will work yet, nobody does. At the end of the day, it’s lots of bravado.”

“As a council we want to be consulted on anything to do with building in the borough, whether homes, offices, roads or infrastructure — we want to consult on what’s best for our residents.”

What about affordable homes?

But Cllr Rachelle Shepherd-DuBey, Liberal Democrat lead for planning, said the plans would allow developers to do what they want, where they want.

She told Wokingham.Today: “There’s no information about what this is, or how it will work.

“The Government has forgotten that hospitals are built under clinical commissioning (CCGs) as part of the NHS. And they’re suggesting building schools without consulting with the council.”

And Cllr Shepherd-DuBey is concerned the reform won’t lead to more affordable homes, or better infrastructure for residents.

“Most companies aren’t altruistic and don’t want to do things for the local area. We need homes built to reasonable standards, with adequate room to live in. And there’s nothing about different types of transport, such as building trams or railways. There are no requirements for anything. What’s been said seems vague.”

In his announcement, Mr Jenrick wrote: “Our reformed system places a higher regard on quality and design than ever before … good design is the best antidote to local objections to building”.

Reviving an outdated system

It was part of the news the Government is “cutting red tape” from the “outdated and cumbersome planning system”.

But Cllr Kaiser criticised Mr Jenricks’ view of the system.

He said: “The idea that the planning process created issues with delivering homes is complete rubbish. It’s down to the developer.

“Why don’t they build the homes they’ve already got permission for in Wokingham? Some developers have been sitting on planning permission for three years and still haven’t built.”

Does the council get a say?

Cllr Kaiser also said he thought once the zoning for growth, renewal and protection had been decided, the council would be given the opportunity to make changes to developments through the reserved matters section of the planning process.

This is when the planning committee can intervene to change the size, scale and look of developments to better suit the area.

He said: “If they got rid of the reserved matters within these changes, they’d have to find something to replace it. They can’t just have no rules. How do you control the planning process without rules? Nobody wants a dog’s dinner.”

But Cllr Sheperd-DuBey was concerned the new reform would take the power away from councils, and push housing development on the borough with little say.

The leader of Wokingham Labour also condemned the plans.

Cllr Andy Croy, called the local Conservative group ineffectual at managing housing numbers in the borough.

Will a naked protest work?

He told Wokingham.Today: “The Tory commitment to rip up planning was in their general election manifesto for anyone who cared to read it.

“Local authority planning committees are already hamstrung by the law and the National Policy Framework (NPF) — that is why the borough has had to take so many houses and why the Tories are planning to take thousands more.

“In the space of two years we have gone from wasting 50,000 on a housing consultation we all knew the answers to, to a local party so ineffectual that its main policy position appears to be some sort of naked protest in Whitehall.”

But Cllr Kaiser defended the protest, instead suggesting it is a symbol of the council’s commitment to reducing housing numbers.

Cllr Croy said the pressure to build in the borough was due to a lack of investment in the northern economy, under Conservative rule.

He said: “We have been failed by Tory MPs Redwood, May, Lee and Wilson who, for yearsas MPs, ministers and even the prime minister failed to protect the borough.

“Until we shift long-term economic growth to poorer parts of the UK, the demand for housing in the Thames Valley will continue.”

Protected Greenbelt

He also said the new announcement would likely benefit residents living in the north of the borough, under the plan to protect Greenbelt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

“Locally, it looks like naked John Halsall’s patch will be protected as his ward contains most of the designated greenbelt in the borough,” said Cllr Croy. “But the rest of the borough needs to brace itself for a flood of Tory concreting.”

The entire reform is founded on the assumption that house building is the key to economic recovery post-coronavirus.

He said: “Millions of jobs depend on the construction sector, and in every recovery it has played a crucial role. These reforms will create thousands of new jobs, from bricklayers to architects.”

Cllr Shepherd-DuBey said the plan might have worked had the economy been going well.

“They can build all the houses they want,” she said. “But what are they going to do when they can’t sell them?

“Don’t forget the 2008 crash, when people were buying homes with less money that they should have, and banks relaxed their lending standards.”

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