RIBA president warns Johnson not to waste opportunity to build back more sustainably

Architects have reacted with concern to the prime minister’s pledge to unleash the most radical reform of the planning system since the Second World War.

RIBA president Alan Jones warned that ditching the requirement for planning applications in even more cases was at odds with the government’s stated ambition to build more beautifully.

Allowing developers to tear down derelict buildings and replace them with housing without democratic scrutiny would lead to the creation of future slums, he said.

Johnson confirmed the extension of permitted development rights – which embattled housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced in March and last year and which Building Design has exposed as resulting in the conversion of former offices into tiny, overheated, single-aspect homes – in a major speech in the Midlands today.

The planning reforms, which are expected to including a new system of zoning when they are fleshed out next month, are necessary to kick-start a wave of construction, said the prime minister who is pinning his hopes on this to rebuild the economy. They will come into force in September.

He announced what he said would be the UK’s version of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal for the US in the Great Depression of the 1930s, promising £5bn to accelerate infrastructure projects across the country.

Johnson said: “We must work fast, because we’ve already seen the vertiginous drop in GDP, and we know that people are worried about their jobs and their businesses.”

Among the promised schemes under his so-called “build back better” strategy is a £1.5bn initiative for hospital maintenance work, £100m for 29 road projects, £142m to upgrade courts and £900m for local shovel-ready schemes this year and next. Very little is new money, said analysts.

The UK is now widely considered to be in recession with GDP for April alone collapsing by 20.4%.

On Tuesday, the Office for National Statistics said the hit to the economy in the first quarter of this year was worse than thought, revising its contraction up from 2% to 2.2% – the joint largest fall since 1979.

Johnson also announced Project Speed, a taskforce chaired by the chancellor Rishi Sunak designed to accelerate existing projects and “scythe through red tape and get things done” more quickly.

The announcements were broadly welcomed by the construction industry which has suffered a wave of swingeing job cuts in the last month.

Leo Quinn, chief executive of the country’s biggest builder, Balfour Beatty, said: “It will generate vast employment opportunities. Without this, we could see widespread structural unemployment issues.”

But Aecom’s UK chief executive David Barwell said the country needed more than catchphrases. “We of course welcome the prime minister’s commitment to ‘build, build, build’ but what we now need to see is ‘action, action, action’,” he said.

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Bruce Dear, head of London real estate at Eversheds Sutherland, said the planning changes were among the day’s biggest announcements.

“The big story of Johnson’s speech is not its Rooseveltian references or relatively modest spending increases, it is Johnson’s radical Thatcherite plan to relax the UK planning system,” he said.

“That’s bad news for newts, NIMBYs and anyone expecting long and elaborate investigations into new housing and infrastructure projects, but good news for free marketeers who have long blamed the UK’s planning systems for all of our housing and infrastructure woes.”

Tom Holbrook, director of 5th Studio and design advocate to the mayor of London, tweeted:

 

Johnson said he wanted to embark on the most radical planning reforms since the post-war Labour government nationalised development rights and formed the modern-day planning system.

RIBA president Alan Jones said: “I welcome the recognition for ‘urgent action’ from the prime minister and hope the announcements today are the first of many needed to address the shortcomings of the UK’s physical and social infrastructure.

“However, I am extremely concerned by the proposal to enable even more commercial buildings to change to residential use without the need for a planning application. The government’s own advisory panel referred to the homes created by this policy as ‘slums’. It is hard to reconcile the commitment to quality with expanding a policy that has delivered low-quality, unsustainable and over-crowded homes across England.

“I urge the prime minister not to waste this opportunity and to re-build a more sustainable and resilient economy, ensuring that quality and safety remain at the heart of investment.”

Former RIBA president Ben Derbyshire tweeted:

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The government also announced details of further funding to support housebuilding, which initially appeared to include a significant reduction in funding for affordable housing.

In March the government announced plans to spend £12bn on an affordable housebuilding programme over five years, whereas today’s announcement appeared to say the money will now be spent over eight.

However, a government spokesman later said the programme had not been stretched or changed, and that the funding was in line with what was announced at the Budget, with the discrepancy due to the difference between when money is spent by government and when homes are actually delivered.

Polly Neate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, said: “No planning reform of any size or shape is a substitute for a funding cut, let alone reforms that will only result in a small amount of bad-quality housing. We’ve already seen what happens when you take the blockers off bad housing – families end up in dangerous, overcrowded, rabbit-hutch homes. Far from bouncing forward this is stumbling backwards.”

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UKGBC, said she was disappointed Johnson had prioritised “build, build, build” over ”build back better”.

She said: “If we do not seize this moment, and take the opportunity to underpin our recovery plans with climate ambition, we will not achieve our target of net zero emissions by 2050. Yet the plans announced by the PM today make no reference to energy efficiency – perhaps the most urgent of all infrastructure priorities – that can create jobs right around the country, improve health and reduce costs to NHS, and increase consumer spending power by lowering energy bills.”