JUST when I had almost completely written off this government, it has suddenly decided to announce a genuine, albeit limited, pro-growth policy. Speaking today, the Prime Minister will announce an emergency but time-limited partial liberalisation of planning rules.
For one year only, there will be a doubling of Permitted Development Rights – what businesses and homeowners are allowed to do without the need to seek planning permission. It will become easier to put in a new conservatory, loft extension or garage conversion, though there may still be limits to this in certain areas. David Cameron will promise that homeowners will be able to extend to 6m or 8m beyond the property’s rear wall, depending on whether it is a terraced or detached property. Businesses will be able to expand their shop by 100 square metres and industrial units by 200 square metres, and shops and offices will be permitted to develop up to the boundary of the premises.
This would be an excellent, though of course somewhat limited, measure. Let us hope that these reforms actually materialise, unlike so much of what the government has promised until now. The government says that there will be a one month consultation period and that the changes will happen before the end of the year, guaranteeing a substantial construction boom and the rescue of a struggling industry. It will also help partly alleviate Britain’s horrendous housing crisis, which sees millions of families crammed into excessively cramped accommodation. Many will now be able to extend their properties, including semis and ground floor flats. Many families can’t afford to move, because loan to value ratios on mortgages have declined substantially and because of crippling stamp duty. However, many of these will be able to extend the size of their properties, thus making a move less necessary. Of course, it will only benefit those with the land and money to pay for an extension, but that will still be a large number of people.
This partial and temporary liberalisation of the housing market will not please everybody. Many neighbours will be angered by new structures appearing in their neighbourhood and at times damaging their views. It will be decried as anti-environmentalist, as the greatest ever destruction of garden space. It was the Conservatives who used to rail against people who paved over their front gardens to make space for off-street parking; Lib Dems activists will be outraged.
Of course we mustn’t concrete over the whole of the countryside or build skyscrapers in every back garden. But we have gone too far the other way. We have become ridiculously anti-development and anti-growth, destroying jobs, artificially boosting house prices, and forcing young people to live in rabbit hatches. Property rights – the ability do what one chooses with one’s land and home – have been excessively eroded, with homeowners having to grovel for permission for even the smallest changes. It has become far too difficult to get anything done in Britain. In most other areas the government is still getting it wrong, with the ridiculous decision to set up a commission into airport expansion that will take three years – yes, three years, until the summer of 2015 – to report. It is these sort of cowardly blunders that have made me such a harsh, despairing critic of this government, especially given its inability to push through supply-side reforms. But not today. For once, the prime minister is showing courage. This reform, while modest, will create tens of thousands of jobs. The devil will be in the detail, but this fresh attitude is to be applauded.