UK to relax planning rules and prioritise urban development

The UK Government will prioritise urban development and relax planning rules to make housebuilding in city centres easier, the Levelling up, Housing and Communities Secretary Michael Gove said yesterday in his most significant speech since taking office.

Michael Gove delivering his speech in London yesterday

“We will unequivocally, unapologetically and intensively concentrate our biggest efforts in the hearts of our cities,” Gove said. “Our plan is to build the right homes where there is the most need and where there is local support, in the heart of Britain’s great cities.”

Gove also said he “absolutely” stands by the Tories’ Manifesto promise to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, even if the Commons Housing Committee said in a report that pledge cannot be met “by a country mile”.

The Government is setting aside £24 million to help accelerate planning approvals, making it easier to convert shops, takeaways, betting shops and other commercial properties into homes. Red tape will be cut to enable barn conversions and the repurposing of agricultural buildings and disused warehouses. Developers will be asked to pay higher fees to fund improvements to the planning system.

Gove contrasted his approach that focuses on city centres with the Labour opposition’s plan to alleviate the housing shortage by making it easier for councils to build on the green belt.

“We will be using all of the levers that we have to promote urban regeneration rather than swallowing up virgin land,” he said. “We’re thinking about urban regeneration and the creation of new urban quarters, we’re thinking about them with GP surgeries, primary schools, other services, and urban parkland and green spaces built in from the beginning.”

He also announced that another £13 million will go towards the creation of a new “super squad” of experts tasked with solving planning problems for major projects.

Peter Freeman, new leader of the “planning supersquad”

The new team, led by Peter Freeman, chair of Homes England, will be deployed in Cambridge first because the city’s prospects as a leading global research centre are being held back by the shortage of laboratory space, while the shortage of housing was making it difficult for companies to recruit staff.

“Imagine a major new quarter for the city, built in a way that is in keeping with the beauty of the historic centre, shaped by the principles of high quality design, urban beauty and human scale streetscapes, with a high proportion of affordable homes, and other properties set aside for key workers and young academics,” Gove said. “Then connect that new quarter to the rest of the city with a sustainable transport network that sees current congestion becoming a thing of the past.”

However a row looms over Gove’s hope of turning Cambridge into the UK’s new Silicon Valley. Anthony Browne, the conservative MP who represents South Cambridgeshire, said he is strongly opposed to the idea because the area is the driest in the country. Cambridge already has the highest housebuilding in the UK, he said, and it cannot sustain the plans to build 50,000 new homes by 2050. “We have run out of water,” he said.