Last month housing secretary Robert Jenrick backtracked on white paper reforms

Planners and architects have hit out at the government’s new housing design adviser after he expressed his support for the policy of expanding permitted development rights.

In an exclusive interview with Building, Nicholas Boys Smith, former chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, also backed the planning reform agenda contained in last year’s white paper.


Source: Tom Campbell

Former RIBA president Ben Derbyshire, originally a supporter of the commission’s findings, said Boys Smith’s comments indicated it was actually “a Trojan horse” for radical reform of planning, while others said it was perverse to expand permitted development while claiming to be committed to beauty.

The criticisms reflect the strength of feeling among opponents of the reforms and come amid reports that the government is to drop some of its proposals – which include setting up “growth” zones with automatic outline planning permission – in the face of backbench opposition.

Last month housing secretary Robert Jenrick backtracked on the white paper’s call for “root and branch” reform, telling council leaders there was “no need to rip up the system”.

> Interview Nicholas Boys Smith: ‘A bit of controversy forces you to have the conversation’

He could also bring in “use it or lose it” powers to force developers to build out housing sites more quickly. The Times reported that ministers are considering imposing a “sunset clause” on the build-out of large sites.

Former prime minister Theresa May said the reforms will lead to the “wrong homes in the wrong places”, while former Tory leader Lord Hague compared them to the poll tax. Up to 80 backbenchers are said to be mobilising against them.

Last year backbench opposition forced the government to backtrack on the “standard method” used to calculate local housing need, and introduce space standards into homes via permitted development (PD).

Boys Smith said opposition to the government’s expansion of PD rights to convert commercial buildings to homes without planning permission was “indefensible” given the housing crisis.

Last year his commission was sharply critical of the use of PD.

He said: “The idea that it’s possible to micro-manage what happens to every shop is for the birds. When you’ve got a housing challenge, it is indefensible to be supporting a system that is allowing that level of vacant use.”

The reforms were not “deregulatory” but simply “better regulation” so that “good ordinary” schemes were not tied up in red tape.

“This is not a smokescreen for carpeting over the country with boxes dumped in fields,” he added.

But Derbyshire said: “The proposed reforms are undermining because, after years of austerity, there are inadequate resources to implement them, and the frontloaded work to create new zoned local plans and design codes will be skimped. One is forced to the reluctant conclusion that Living with Beauty concealed the political intentions of those who believe less in democratically accountable planning.

“Anyone who has read this month’s new permitted development rights […] will have no difficulty imagining just how badly this could go. Our struggling high streets need planned mixed use, not a free for all.”

Ben Clifford, associate professor in spatial planning at UCL, said it was “perfectly possible” to govern change of use to residential through planning permission: “Saying we will promote high-quality design through design codes and better local plan processes while exempting a large and growing amount of development from such requirements is perverse.”

Hugh Ellis, policy director at the Town and Country Planning Association, criticised Boys Smith’s apparent support for the “shameful” expansion of PD, which he said was “damaging people’s lives”.

He said: “It will fragment high streets and make positive local regeneration impossible to implement.”