Boris Johnson vowed today to bulldoze Britain’s bloated planning system to help get the economy moving again.
Relaunching his Government, the Prime Minister pledged to bring forward ‘the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War’.
He said the move, which will see ministers take the axe to swathes of red tape, would pave the way for an ‘infrastructure revolution’ that would create jobs now and improve productivity long-term.
Mr Johnson said the Government wanted to ‘build, build, build’, but added that he would ‘build back better, build back greener, build back faster.’ Chancellor Rishi Sunak will lead a new unit, dubbed ‘Project Speed’ to fast track major infrastructure projects and identify bottlenecks in the system that need to be cleared away.
The Prime Minister hinted that he would also take the bulldozer to parts of the Whitehall machine, saying he had been frustrated by its ‘sluggish’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Relaunching his Government in a speech in Dudley today, the Prime Minister pledged to bring forward ‘the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War’
Mr Johnson used the speech in Dudley, in the West Midlands, to set out the principles of his government following months in which the coronavirus has occupied almost all of its effort.
He said that, despite the continuing health challenges and looming economic crisis, it was ‘the moment to be ambitious’ about the future.
People would be offered a ‘New Deal’, he said, with Britain rebuilt in a fairer way after the pandemic exposed divisions in society. The PM restated his determination to offer opportunity to people living in ‘neglected’ parts of the country, saying he was ‘doubling down on levelling up.’
The Prime Minister said there would be no return to austerity, despite the dire state of the public finances, but refused to rule out tax rises further down the track.
The Prime Minister hinted that he would also take the bulldozer to parts of the Whitehall machine, saying he had been frustrated by its ‘sluggish’ response to the coronavirus pandemic
And he said he would pour resources into addressing the looming jobs crisis, saying that keeping people in work and helping them re-skill was the ‘biggest and most immediate economic challenge that we face’.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said much of the speech was recycled from previous policy announcements and failed to meet the challenge the country is facing.
‘The Prime Minister promised a new deal, but there is not much that’s new, and, it’s not much of a deal,’ he said.
Mr Johnson acknowledged that, with Leicester becoming the first city to go back into lockdown, some would think it ‘premature’ to focus on the future. But he said the country could not afford to continue being ‘prisoners of this crisis’.
In a wide-ranging speech, the Prime Minister:
- Set an ambition to make the UK a ‘science superpower’, with ministers planning a new system for funding ‘high risk, high reward’ projects that can transform British ideas into ‘new British industries and British jobs’.
- Pledged to offer young people an ‘opportunity guarantee’, with businesses to be offered grants to ensure apprenticeships are available for all.
- Revealed that he is close to finalising proposals for a new system for funding social care which will ensure people do not have to sell their homes to pay for care.
- Defended the free market system, saying that people should clap for businessmen and bankers as well as doctors and nurses, as their efforts ‘make our NHS possible’.
- Hinted he could revive audacious plans for a bridge linking Scotland to Northern Ireland as part of plans to strengthen the Union.
- Announced £5billion of additional infrastructure spending, with money to rebuild and refurbish schools, hospitals, courts and prisons.
- Warned against abusing new freedoms to enjoy pubs and restaurants this weekend, saying: ‘The virus is out there still, circling like a shark on the water.’
The PM focused much of his fire on Britain’s sclerotic planning system. He announced a number of immediate changes designed to tackle the crisis in the commercial property sector.
These include allowing offices and shops to be converted into housing without planning permission in most cases.
Businesses will also be able to ‘repurpose’ property to a new use, such as converting a shop into a cafe, without the need for council red tape.
And developers will be able to demolish vacant and redundant buildings without normal planning permission, provided they are to be rebuilt as homes.
But government sources said yesterday’s changes were ‘by no means the end of our ambitions’. At a meeting of government advisers last week, Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief adviser, described the planning system as ‘appalling’, adding: ‘It makes things so hard to build.’
Chancellor Rishi Sunak will lead a new unit, dubbed ‘Project Speed’ to fast track major infrastructure projects and identify bottlenecks in the system that need to be cleared away
Mr Johnson yesterday announced that ministers will bring forward proposals to replace Britain’s seven-decade old planning system with ‘a new approach that works better for our modern economy and society’.
He hinted that time-consuming environmental surveys, and similar red tape, could be streamlined, saying: ‘Time is money, and the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country.’
He added: ‘Yes, we will insist on beautiful and low carbon homes, but Covid has taught us the cost of delay. Why are we so slow at building homes by comparison with other European countries?’
Mr Johnson suggested that ‘Nimbys’, who often slow down developments near their homes by objecting, would also have to accept change. ‘I can imagine there will be some people who reject this or that but there always are,’ he said.
‘We need pace and this is the moment to inject that pace into the ambition of the Government.’
The Prime Minister said there would be no return to austerity, despite the dire state of the public finances, but refused to rule out tax rises further down the track
The PM acknowledged that the planned increase in construction would involve the loss of some green field sites.
He said that although new homes and other projects could often be built on previously developed ‘brownfield’ sites there were ‘other areas that with better transport and other infrastructure could frankly be suitable and right for development’.
Downing Street later clarified that the Government’s manifesto commitment to protect the Green Belt remained in place.
But the push for new development alarmed some environmental campaigners. Tom Fyans, of the CPRE countryside charity, said: ‘Deregulating planning and cutting up red tape simply won’t deliver better quality places. It’s already far too easy to build poor quality homes.’
Boris was fizzier than a can of Vimto, splurging cash and back to his best. Yowzers, says HENRY DEEDES
Hard hat? Check. Oversized high-vis jacket? Check. Daft stunt in hardcore heavy machinery? Check, check, check.
With a crash and a bang and a no small wallop, Boris Johnson rolled into the West Midlands yesterday to outline his ‘new deal’ plans for the economy. Finally, a chance to blow away some of those coronavirus cobwebs and get back to turbo-charging Britain.
First item of business: The obligatory visit to a building site to muck about on a digger. Thud! Clank! Screeeeech!
Amid the din of Boris crunching his way through the gears, there may even have been a prime ministerial yell of ‘yowzers!’ The site’s poor ’elf and safety officer must have been having kittens.
Next up, a rallying cri de coeur at Dudley College of Technology to get Britain back to work. It was bustling, back-to-his-best stuff. Fizzier than a can of Vimto.
The Prime Minister took his place shortly after 11am behind a lectern which read: ‘Build build build.’
For the next 20 minutes we heard how he planned to bring forward £5billion worth of infrastructure spending. New schools, new hospitals, new homes. New trees, even.
With a crash and a bang and a no small wallop, Boris Johnson rolled into the West Midlands yesterday to outline his ‘new deal’ plans for the economy
The slogan might just as well have read: ‘Spend! Spend! Spend!’
We heard so much splurging that at one point the Prime Minister had to remind us: ‘I’m not a communist.’
All I can say is, I hope Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s keeping the stubs from all those cheques. Rishi, my boy, you’ve got some tricky book balancing to do.
Boris was desperate to shake the country out of its sclerotic, lockdown-induced state. ‘We cannot continue to be prisoners of this crisis,’ he said. Although back to full health he does look terribly pasty under the television lights.
Unfortunately, his handlers have as much chance of applying powder puff to his nose as they do getting him into a well ironed shirt.
Hurry, hurry, hurry, was his message. This was a prime minister desperate to make up for lost time. After all, he may have survived corona but it is killing his legacy.
For the next 20 minutes we heard how he planned to bring forward £5billion worth of infrastructure spending. New schools, new hospitals, new homes. New trees, even.
We were told we could hang around for ‘lightning and the thunderclaps’ from its economic reverberations.
There was frustration at the axles of government which sometimes turn far too slowly for his liking, like a ‘recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move’.
Small wonder he was calling this initiative ‘Project Speed’. Boris even spoke with impatience, spitting out some phrases in rat-a-tat-tat fashion.
London ‘as/was/is’ the capital of the world, he said, jabbing his right arm repeatedly like a darts player aiming for the bullseye. He wants to build homes that were ‘better/greener/faster’.
It was noticeable how keen he was to distance himself from his predecessors. So many of these plans he said should have been carried out yonks ago.
Boris pointed out the crisis in our social care system, for example, had been ‘flunked’ by successive governments for 30 years.
He planned to build some roads meant to have been built when John Major was in power.
The Prime Minister said he would not try and ‘cheese-pare’ us out of recession.
Was this a pop at David Cameron’s austerity programme after the 2008 financial crisis? Wouldn’t surprise me. He still pulls a face whenever Dave’s name gets mentioned.
Of his opponent Sir Keir Starmer, there was no mention. The closest Boris came to referencing Labour was when he talked of wanting to lift the country up rather drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator.
‘I don’t believe in tearing people down any more than I believe in tearing down statues that are part of our heritage let alone a statue of our greatest wartime leader,’ he said. Nice line.
He ended with a Tiggerish rally. ‘We will not just bounce back,’ he said. ‘We will bounce forward – stronger and better and more united than ever before.’
Boris isn’t great at telling us how it is, as this crisis has sometimes shown. But what a performer he is when he’s telling us how it might be.
Yes, build, build, build! But DON’T pave over paradise, urges GEOFFREY LEAN
Boris is right to ‘build, build, build’, to kick-start the economy. But, I fear that, unless he is careful, he could be building an environmental disaster.
Much of what the characteristically bullish Prime Minister announced in his well-trailed planning speech yesterday is thoroughly welcome. Much of the rest was unexceptional, focused on development of towns and cities. Yet I fear it may soon presage highly controversial concreting of the countryside.
But first let’s applaud Mr Johnson’s promise to ‘end the chronic failure of the British state… to build enough homes’. As he said, it is a scandal that we have been building half as many homes per head as France.
It is an even greater one that the number of Britons in rented accommodation has more than doubled, to well over five million, since the turn of the millennium.
Boris is right to ‘build, build, build’, to kick-start the economy. But, I fear that, unless he is careful, he could be building an environmental disaster
And it’s true that housebuilding can be a vital spur to desperately-needed growth: constructing hundreds of thousands of dwellings helped Britain out of the great 1930s depression.
Who could fail to welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge to ‘build back better, build back greener, and build back faster’? Or his intention to back the construction of 180,000 affordable homes, including some earmarked for first-time buyers?
Or his commitments to putting up ‘fantastic new homes on brownfield sites’ and making them ‘beautiful and low carbon’ – all necessities shamefully neglected by recent governments.
Specific changes to planning rules, announced yesterday for September, don’t seem unreasonable, provided care is taken. Making it easier to turn shops into homes, offices or cafés, for example, could help revive town centres, so long as this is not allowed to ruin their character.
Specific changes to planning rules, announced yesterday for September, don’t seem unreasonable, provided care is taken. Making it easier to turn shops into homes, offices or cafés, for example, could help revive town centres, so long as this is not allowed to ruin their character
Allowing people to build additional space above their properties could provide more accommodation, but also deprive neighbours of light.
The problem, however, is that we cannot be sure that Mr Johnson has given us the whole picture. Indeed we can be pretty certain he has not. For just one clause in his speech mentions a much greater change due next month, ‘the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War’.
He gave no detail. But there are ominous indications of what is coming down the line. Officially, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick – in the midst of his own controversy over Richard Desmond’s proposed Docklands development – says ‘it is time to rethink planning from first principles’. Unofficial predictions are starker.
The reforms are forecast to ‘take an axe’ to what Dominic Cummings is said to call the ‘appalling’ planning system. He and Jenrick are reported to be backing changes that would ‘fast-track’ giant estates of more than 1,000 houses and – in a profoundly undemocratic move – remove key decisions from elected councils and hand them to development corporations.
The problem, however, is that we cannot be sure that Mr Johnson has given us the whole picture. Indeed we can be pretty certain he has not. Pictured: Construction workers on site at Nine Elms, Central London
Already councils are warning of a developers’ ‘free-for-all’. The developers themselves, who have given £11million to the Conservative party under Mr Johnson’s premiership, are predictably cheering the changes on.
This is politically dangerous. The last time a Tory government tried to relax planning laws, much more mildly, in the early 2010s, 50 of its MPs set up a group to defend the countryside from ‘developers simply looking for a quick profit’, and it had to change course.
Now things are even more explosive. Communities all over the country are up in arms over unwanted development. Which is one reason the Conservatives lost control of councils in the last local elections. More than 30 new towns are planned for open countryside from Cumbria to Kent, without appropriate infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Britain’s supposedly protected Green Belts are threatened by a record 450,000 houses. Ominously, despite many previous promises to safeguard these cherished areas, Mr Johnson did not mention them yesterday.
And it’s all likely to be for nothing. For planning – bureaucratic, slow, and annoying though it can be – is not the reason too few houses are being built. Developers are sitting on enough sites with planning permission to build more than 400,000 homes, enough – if built in a traditional terrace – to reach from London to Rome. They hold on to them as land prices go up, while badgering planners to give them even more.
Boris Johnson should stick to yesterday’s speech and concentrate on building affordable houses on abundant brownfield land in existing settlements, where the necessary infrastructure is already in place. And he should abandon the hidden agenda which could destroy the countryside.
Geoffrey Lean is an environment analyst.
A bold new vision for life after the lockdown
Having been knocked off course by coronavirus, yesterday’s speech in Dudley was Boris Johnson’s chance to relaunch his entire government programme.
He said it was time to ‘double down on levelling up’ – a reference to his manifesto vision for bringing opportunity to all parts of the country.
The wide-ranging speech focused on the PM’s plan to try to and build a route out of recession by accelerating work on critical infrastructure. But it also touched on a number of other topics.
LESSONS TO LEARN
The PM began his speech by acknowledging some would see it as ‘premature’ to be talking about the future at a time when Leicester has gone back into lockdown.
But he said we could not afford to continue being ‘prisoners of this crisis’. He acknowledged mistakes in the handling of the pandemic – and suggested an inquiry would be held at some point, saying there of course must be time to learn the lessons’.
He added: ‘I know that there are plenty of things that people say and will say that we got wrong and we owe that discussion and that honesty to the tens of thousands who have died before their time.’ But he said there were also things the Government had got ‘emphatically right’, such as the Nightingale hospitals.
He said people were still waiting ‘with our hearts in our mouths for the full economic reverberations to appear’ following what was already a ‘vertiginous drop in GDP’.
But he said the Government would continue to spend big, adding: ‘I just serve notice that we will not be responding to this crisis with what people called austerity. We are not going to try to cheese-pare our way out of trouble. Because the world has moved on since 2008.’
Mr Johnson did not mention tax once, but appeared to hint at future rises when he was quizzed about it repeatedly in the press conference that followed.
He said Chancellor Rishi Sunak would say more in a mini-Budget expected next week. The PM refused to say whether his manifesto ‘tax lock’ pledging not to raise the headline rates of income tax, national insurance or VAT still stands in the wake of the pandemic.
He added: ‘You know where my instincts are… to cut taxes wherever we possibly can. But we have a generational challenge and we have to take the country forward.’
Mr Johnson insisted his ‘massive programme of investment’ is the right direction, but acknowledged the need for a ‘dynamic private sector’.
A SCIENCE SUPERPOWER
Harnessing the UK’s scientific potential would be critical to the long-term recovery. A new ‘science funding agency’ will be created this summer ‘to back high risk, high reward projects’.
The idea, modelled on the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US, has long been an obsession of the PM’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings and is likely to be backed with hundreds of millions of pounds.
The Government would also work to ensure that research in the UK leads to more jobs here. ‘Though we are no longer a military superpower we can be a science superpower but we must end the chasm between invention and application… we need a new dynamic commercial spirit to make the most of UK breakthroughs so that British ideas produce new British industries and British jobs.’
Mr Johnson also launched a challenge codenamed ‘Jet Zero’ to develop the world’s first zero-carbon long-haul passenger jet.
CLAP FOR BANKERS
The PM acknowledged that his vision contained a ‘prodigious amount of government intervention’ by the standards of recent Tory administrations. But he also launched a defence of the market economy – and even suggested that bankers deserved applause.
He said: ‘My friends, I am not a communist. I believe it is also the job of government to create the conditions for free market enterprise.
And yes of course we clap for our NHS, but under this government we also applaud those who make our NHS possible, our innovators, our wealth creators, our capitalists and financiers.’ He said their willingness to take risks with their own money was ‘crucial’ for the UK’s success.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has said social distancing is likely to remain necessary until a vaccine is found. But yesterday the PM suggested he would like to scrap social distancing rules as soon as cases of the virus decline sufficiently.
‘I don’t want a world where we are endlessly asked to stay metres apart,’ he said. ‘That is not going to work for a great services economy like ours. We have got to get the disease down and return to normal life as fast as we possibly can.’
He issued a warning on jobs, saying: ‘We know in our hearts that the furloughing cannot go on for ever. And as the economy recovers we also know that the jobs that many people had in January are also not coming back, or at least not in that form.’
Creating jobs and retraining opportunities was the ‘biggest and most immediate economic challenge that we face.’ And he said the Government would offer an ‘Opportunity Guarantee’ so every young person has the chance of an apprenticeship or an in-work placement. The Treasury is expected to offer firms small grants to create training places.
The financial crisis caused by the lockdown would not prevent ministers making progress on the reform of social care.
He gave no details of his plans, which were being ‘finalised’, but said: ‘We won’t wait to fix the problem of social care that every government has flunked for the last 30 years.
We will end the injustice that some people have to sell their homes to finance the costs of their care while others don’t.’
HOPE ON HOUSING
The PM pledged to tackle the ‘intergenerational injustice’ facing young people who are unable to get on the housing ladder. He confirmed plans for a £12billion affordable housing programme over the next eight years, which will create 180,000 homes.
And he revealed that a pilot will be launched of a new ‘First Homes’ initiative, which will offer first-time buyers a 30 per cent discount.
No mention was made of the ructions within government that led to the departure of Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill at the weekend.
Sir Mark is said to have been forced out after a power struggle with Dominic Cummings who saw him as a ‘roadblock’ to a shake-up of the civil service.
The PM did not spell out his plans for a Whitehall revolution, but made it clear he was frustrated with its response to the current crisis.
‘Parts of government seemed to respond so sluggishly,’ he said. ‘So that sometimes it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move.’