Hopkins Homes boss: Why I’m concerned about Government planning reforms

James Hopkins, executive chairman of Hopkins Homes. Picture: HOPKINS HOMES

James Hopkins, executive chairman of Hopkins Homes. Picture: HOPKINS HOMES - Credit: Archant

Executive chairman of housebuilder Hopkins Homes, James Hopkins, explains why he has “grave reservations” about some of the Government’s proposed planning reforms.

“Build, build, build” – that is how many are summarising the Government’s proposed planning reforms, set out in a White Paper launched in August, with the consultation ending last month.

Essentially the reforms aim, according to the Government “to streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed.”

The reforms have had a very mixed reaction with some headlines proclaiming they threaten local democracy or prepare the way for a new round of slum building! The housing charity, Shelter worries that they will reduce construction of affordable housing and the Wildlife Trusts say that they fail to protect nature and the National Trust has warned of concrete deserts devoid of green space.

But surely, as a housebuilder, I must be delighted at the prospect of a streamlined system? Many in my industry, myself included, have complained for years that the current system is slow and expensive and delays housebuilding; targets are continually missed and in the meantime ever more people are priced out of the market or forced to live in substandard accommodation, paying high rents for poor homes.

There is much in the proposals that I welcome – not least the emphasis on expecting new developments to be beautiful, something I have long urged and sought to set an example through the careful, quality design of the houses we built at Hopkins Homes. The reforms include proposals to introduce a ‘fast-track for beauty’ to automatically permit proposals for high quality development.

Such reforms are long overdue. There are just too many ugly, one-size-fits-all developments in our suburbs and villages. If the reforms can reverse that trend and truly build beauty back into our development industry, then I will certainly stand back and applaud the Government.

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There is also a strong emphasis on engaging local communities in the development of the local plan, which I think is critical and also much fairer to all. So often, when we apply for planning permission on land that has already been allocated for housing in a local plan by the local authority, we face the wrath of the local community for daring to fulfil that plan! Communities need to work hand in hand with local authorities to develop and agree that strategic plan, setting aside land for housing, schools, health facilities and green space. The role of housebuilders is then simply to deliver that plan – fulfilling the agreed strategy of the local area.

But I have to say that I have grave reservations about other key aspects of what the Government is proposing. I am a housebuilder, yes, and very proud of what Hopkins Homes has achieved, but I am also a resident of Suffolk, a lover of its heritage and the special places in its landscapes.

Central to the Government’s ideas is the division of land into three zones; growth; renewal and protected. New developments in growth zones would be allowed automatically, which, you could argue, will certainly speed up the planning system, reducing complexity and delivering houses and infrastructure, more quickly.

My fear here is not the principle but the detail. If large swathes of land are designated for growth with a presumption of automatic planning, then there is scope for a general, unplanned free-for-all of development, with scant regard for the intricacies of the landscape and the value of individual fields and views. I am just not convinced that the beautiful and subtle patchwork of the Suffolk landscape can be compartmentalised in this way. If the Government really wants to build beautifully then every site has to be assessed on its individual merits, not lumped into some general zone with a presumption of planning approval and a single design code. That’s why – on a different subject - I am personally very opposed to the prospect of two new reactors at Sizewell – its scale simply can’t be accommodated within the fragile landscape of our beautiful coastline.

And the thought of a local authority appointing a chief officer for design and place-making (one of the Government’s other proposals) worries me too – no one person can have a monopoly on what is good design, surely? Good house builders take each site on its merits and design accordingly.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the current planning regime and one that the White Paper doesn’t address, is that it is grossly under-resourced. Local authority planning teams are smaller than ever and struggle to meet their own deadlines. Which means that local plans are long-delayed and planning decisions take far too long, years in some cases, to get through the system. The Government is saying that all authorities must produce their local plans within a thirty-month period. Well and good, but then they must be resourced and equipped with the people and technology to do that, otherwise little progress will be made, or alternatively a rushed and poorly considered plan may result.

I wrote in an earlier article of the need for a new partnership between local authorities, communities and developers built around a commitment to invest in infrastructure, invest in communities and deliver higher quality, well designed homes. These planning reforms offer some hope on the issue of design, but I am afraid they offer no guarantees on infrastructure or communities, both of which are essential parts of the package of good house building and can’t be delivered by developers alone.

My overall feeling is that the Government is trying to do the right thing and its emphasis on better building within a streamline process is a step in the right direction. But I would urge them - and all our local MPs – to think carefully about the unintended consequences of fast-tracked solutions to complex problems.

Yes, let’s maintain the emphasis on design and beauty, but be careful of general zoning –Suffolk simply isn’t that simple.

• James Hopkins is Executive Chairman of Hopkins Homes.

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