THE BLOG
06/09/2012 13:18 BST | Updated 06/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Relaxing Planning Laws Will Damage British Housing

I travel the length and breadth of the country throughout the year, visiting literally thousands of homes. I've seen first-hand the absolute carbuncles put up on properties under existing laws that already allow extensions only half the size the Government is now proposing.

We've all had our run-ins with planners, and we've all been the victims of over-zealous planning laws, but at the end of the day they are independent and, no matter how frustrating they can be at the time, are trying to preserve the country's architectural heritage and the lifestyle and amenities of local owners and neighbours.

At the end of the day, this isn't about red tape but rather the protection of our planned and designed built environment.

And removing a safety net that has existed for generations as a knee jerk political reaction to capture headlines is simply crazy.

If you allow Joe Public free range like this, many tens of thousands of people will put up the most ill conceived piles of bricks which not only devalue their own properties - but also the homes of their neighbours, and risk massive local upset and animosity that could last for years.

In the most extreme cases, this change in the law could encourage so-called 'neighbours from hell' to embark on frivolous projects simply out of spite.

Depending on their property, a new extension might be up to ten feet high, maybe more including a roof, 24 feet long, blocking views, overlooking gardens and cutting out the light.

If your own neighbours are planning an extension, it could be made of breezeblocks and have a pink roof. But there will be nothing you can do about it.

At the moment people can build something half the size being proposed without permission and, believe me, they don't always get it right.

This relaxation will exacerbate that problem a thousand fold. Imagine having something the size of a large garage in your neighbours' back garden without the chance for you to comment or raise objections. Imagine windows overlooking your garden, imagine a pool house or spa, imagine a huge conservatory, and imagine a light-blocking hobby room. You're not dreaming. The nightmare could be real.

And, apart from anything else, these proposals could spark a rise in the number of DIY extensions and encourage have-a-go-homeowners who feel freed from the constraint of the rules. Projects will still be liable to building regulations. But many simply won't see the difference between planning permission and regs and think they can do whatever they like. If there is an overall feeling that suddenly the rules don't apply anymore you'll see a rash of carbuncles.

You're taking out a whole level of protection for the public. Some schemes will be caught, others will slip through: dangerous and ugly structures that blight the architectural heritage of our country.

There is already a problem with over-occupation of properties and outbuildings in some of our cities and, again, this could exacerbate it by giving planners and local authorities less excuse to get involved and protect the built environment and the people who live and work in it. Who's going to know if granny's sleeping in the shed?

Overall, when there's a relaxation in the rules, the knock-on affect is an increase in spurious, on the edge developments.

As a policy, this is right up there with George Osborne's recent suggestions that councils should be able to remove plots from the Green Belt for development, then replace them piecemeal with other bits of land. Builders are sitting on 400,000 plots of land in England alone that already have planning permission. Many of these are in deep freeze while developers wait for prices to rise.

The Green Belt was invented to put a ring of countryside around our big cities and towns, so one does not merge into another like it does in some countries.

When you tamper with Green Belt, you risk the spread of urban sprawl. And there are plenty of brownfield sites available. You can't simply swap one piece of protected land, then replace it with another. It makes a mockery of the system.

Sadly, both of these policies, the relaxation of planning laws and changes to the Green Belt, smack of back of the fag packet ideas and desperate measures on the part of the coalition government.

Before any of this is passed into statute, somebody needs to wake up, smell the roses and think through the blight and chaos both these policies could potentially cause to hundreds of thousands of Britons.

Otherwise, we will look back in the future and wonder how on earth we could allow this to happen?

It's not unlike some of the glaring monstrosities built in the Sixties we now wince at. I for one don't want my children looking back in 30 years time wondering how people were allowed to build so many eyesores in their back gardens.

But I'm not just going to lob bricks and criticize. If the Government wants to look at some sensible solutions to help the economy, the housing market and the building trade, there are a couple of easy options they could implement overnight.

Number one, chop the VAT rate for building works and products so if you want to build an extension, or carry out improvements, it's immediately cheaper to employ someone or do it yourself. A bit like the cut in VAT on new cars boosted the motor trade. Let's have a rate of ten per cent - that would make an immediate difference. And, number two, how about offering financial incentives to developers to start using their stocks of brownfield sites? That wipes out the need for Green Belt development and, once again, boosts home building.

Whatever else we do, for the country's sake and for future generations we must keep the planning laws intact and operating independently.

If not, how long will it be before we see a conservatory on Stonehenge or a dormer roof on St Paul's Cathedral?

Find out more about Martin's work on his website.