Last week the UK economy narrowly missed slipping back into a triple dip recession causing the coalition Government to breathe a collective sigh of relief. There is currently a large onus on local authorities to stimulate growth and the Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles and Planning Minister Nick Boles are seeking to relax planning regulations as a way to boost local economies.
One such proposal, put forward last year, would allow the building, without planning permission, of single-storey extensions of up to eight metres for detached houses and six metres for other houses. Speaking in the House of Commons, Pickles argued that these measures would boost the construction industry, empower local DIY fans and generally help local people earn a living.
Some Conservative MPs and Peers, however, are sceptical, in particular Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston and Lord True, Leader of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames who argue that the Government is diminishing the right of communities to shape their environment. Residents of leafy suburbs like Richmond don’t want to lose their light and space (amenities protected by planning laws) to over-bearing and poorly designed extensions. To address these concerns Pickles has put forward an amendment which means that local authorities will be obliged to notify neighbours about planned developments and if there are any objections, the plans will be more deeply scrutinised.
The rhetoric around deregulation and boosting economic growth is misleading. Extending houses by eight metres may not go far enough to boost either the DIY or the construction industry. There is an acute housing shortage, with fewer homes being built than at any time since the 1930s. This is where the Government should concentrate its firepower – through financial incentives to stimulate the affordable housing sector. Not only would a social housing building programme boost the economy; it would help bring down the cost of housing and enable the “striving middle class” to obtain a foothold on the housing ladder. It will also help diffuse the perception that, when it comes to localism, the Government is talking out of both sides of its mouth – claiming to give more power to communities, but then clawing it back through central government policies that constrain local planning authority from making decisions adapted to local needs.