The Government, following a noisy protest by its own MPs, has abandoned plans to use an algorithm that would have increased housebuilding in the Conservatives’ rural heartlands.
The outcry from MPs created a perfect storm that has led the administration to perform a U-turn on building in the South East. The formula, referred to by one Tory MP as a ‘mutant algorithm’, would have cut construction of new housing in northern England, while prioritising housebuilding in towns and villages in the South East.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) condemned the proposals, saying they would lead to ‘a massive loss of countryside’. The Local Government Association (LGA) predicted the proposals, announced in August, would ‘seriously jeopardise’ the Government’s declared intent to level up economic activity in disadvantaged areas of the country.
A Labour MP told Building magazine that prior to a debate on the proposals in the House of Commons in October, 55 Conservative MPs had put down their names on the order paper to argue against the plans.
Consequently, on Wednesday of this week, the Government announced a U-turn, stating that its updated housing formula to enable the delivery of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s will henceforward prioritise brownfield sites and urban areas instead of countryside.
£100m ‘brownfield land release fund’
Housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, said the new plans will incentivise more housebuilding in England’s 20 largest cities and urban centres, thereby increasing levelling up and helping these areas recover from the pandemic.
According to Jenrick, the Covid-19 pandemic has speeded up and made more visible patterns that already existed, creating opportunities for businesses to convert offices and retail to housing and generate urban renewal.
The Government, he said, wants this to be a chance to create a new way forward for our major cities, post- Covid, which enhances urban centres, making them more attractive, healthier, more prosperous and neighbourly. And where more people can have the security and comfort of a home of their own.
The reform, he explained, will afford the planning system more certainty ‘without compromising standards of design, quality and environmental protection’. And that building more homes will ‘increase social justice, fairness between generations and create jobs for working people’.
The revised planning system will also allow for revision of the ’80/20 rule’, which determines how much money is available to local areas to help build homes, to ensure the majority of funding is not confined to the capital and the South East.
Proposals, therefore, include a £100m ‘brownfield land release fund’ to encourage urban regeneration and development on public sector land.
£67m funding for housebuilding
The housing secretary emphasised that cities will be encouraged to plan for more homes of the right size and type for families to live in. And to make the best use of vacant buildings and underused land to protect green spaces.
Ministers will also allocate in excess of £67m in funding to the Greater Manchester and West Midlands authorities to deliver new homes. The original proposals would have reputedly cut housebuilding in Newcastle by 66pc, Manchester by 37pc and the North East in general by 28pc, whereas development in the South East outside London would have risen by 57pc.
Critics of the original scheme said the algorithm would have led to the destruction of the green belt, the traditional distinction in British planning between built-up areas and the 70-80pc of land that remains rural, while hastening the decline of poorer cities.
Voicing their concern, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) forecast that the abolition of planning permissions, which were contained in the original proposals, would have resulted in ‘the next generation of slum housing’.
The Conservatives had pledged in their election manifesto last year to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. Shelter, meanwhile, has estimated that 280,000 people were homeless in England as of last December.