Queen’s speech: Planning reforms are badly needed, but must also meet the needs of London’s hopeful owners


The Queen’s Speech will include the biggest overhaul of the English planning system in seventy years.

The country will be divided into “growth” and “protection” zones – with a potential third designation of “regeneration”. Growth areas will have limited restrictions on development while construction in protection areas will be restricted.

Areas should be designated by councils in local plans with community consultation. But there will be less ability to dismiss individual developments that fit into the plan. This is great news. A less discretionary system with ambitious goals means more certainty of investing in construction, which alleviates the housing crisis.

Government ministers hope planning reforms will increase home ownership in towns and small towns in the North and Midlands that voted Conservative for the first time in generations. The Conservatives achieved immense electoral success thanks to a political realignment of culturally conservative working class voters away from the Labor Party. The Government is now faced with the immense challenge facing all those who live in these “left behind” areas.

Making it easier to build and live is not a bad way to start. But the goal of planning reform should not be so narrow. We cannot forget where the housing shortage is most acute: the cities. People in London spend more than twice as much on rent and two-fifths more on mortgage payments than the rest of the country.

Read more: One in three Londoners experiences drop in income during pandemic, study finds

Ultimately, this is driven by the movement of people to cities, the engine room of a contemporary economy. This is where people work, socialize and have fun. Cities benefit from “agglomeration effects”, which means that when people meet, they spontaneously exchange ideas. This shock and greater magnitude sparks new ideas and productivity gains that enrich humanity.

As the famous urban economist Edward Glaeser writes: “Our culture, our prosperity and our freedom are all ultimately gifts from people who live, work and think together – the ultimate triumph of the city.

The pandemic and the work-from-home revolution temporarily halted the city’s rise – as did the motor vehicle in the mid-1920se century allowed people to live further afield. Rents have fallen in parts of London with hundreds of thousands of people leaving the capital. But most will come back and those who don’t will be replaced by the next generation of young and ambitious people.

Those who think the city is definitely dead are wrong. The pandemic’s restrictions limited the ability of people to meet, eat, drink, club or be entertained in a theater or a sports match. As the restrictions are lifted, people will want to start these activities again. A return to the city and the roaring twenties await you.

The government should not bemoan those who move to cities or subsidize those who stay in the cities of origin. Social mobility depends on physical mobility. The great power of cities is to attract the poor but ambitious, who want to improve their lot. There could be no more conservatives.

The challenge is to ensure that people are not excluded from cities and jobs due to unaffordable housing. The inability of people to live where they would be most productive has enormous economic consequences, lowering incomes across the country. Planning reform, by giving people access to more suitable and better paying jobs, could increase GDP by more than 20% in a decade, allowing the UK to overtake the German economy.

Read more: London, only region of UK to report drop in rental prices over the past five years

One solution discussed in last year’s planning white paper was street votes: allow a street or a block to respect their design rules with gentle densification. This would make building more homes a win-win, with everyone on the street receiving the same permission to add that extra story or an extension onto an abandoned lane.

A truly One Nation Conservative Party should aspire to be of service to all across the UK. Planning reform can be helpful for people from city to mega-city.




About Nancy Owens

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