Ten things we learned from the Conservative Party conference

The Conservative Party held its annual conference in Manchester earlier this week. Here are ten things that we learned from the event.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick (pic: Getty)
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick (pic: Getty)

1. The government is going to push ahead with easing planning rules to allow upwards extensions of homes and the demolition of commercial buildings to make way for new housing.

Speaking at a fringe event organised by the Policy Exchange think tank, housing secretary Robert Jenrick described the measures as "two new freedoms" that would "get the planning system working in a much simpler and faster way". Upwards extensions, he said, would allow homeowners to add up to two storeys to their property, "where me as secretary of state grants that rather than you having to ask permission to do so".

On the demolition proposal, he said developers would have a "right" to "purchase properties such as a neglected sixties or seventies office building, demolish it and then rebuild it as housing". But consent would be secured through the two-stage permission in principle route, with authorities able to consider issues like quality, the facade, height and parking provision.

More details here.

2. A new national model design code will be published next year, with local authorities required to produce their own local variations.

Jenrick told the Policy Exchange fringe event that, once the model code was published, the government would "then be asking every single local authority in the country to create their own version of this code, talking to local residents, talking to heritage groups and environmental groups in their area". The code would "have a very significant legal right to hold developers to account", the minister added. 

Jenrick also announced the publications of a new housing design guide, which, along with updated Planning Practice Guidance on design, was subsequently released on Tuesday afternoon. The guide was "very much inspired" by the work of the government's Building Better Building Beautiful Commission and of Policy Exchange, he added.

More details here.

3. The government will be "changing the rules" around permitted development (PD) rights for new housing to improve standards, the housing minister suggested, as part of the review of the controversial policy. 

Earlier this year, the previous housing secretary James Brokenshire announced a review of the impact of residential PD rights on housing quality. At a fringe event organised by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) think tank, housing minister Esther McVey, said: "Where it's not working, we will be changing the rules to ensure that they are habitable, because there are certain conditions that people must live in." She later added: "What we are doing is making sure that standards are better."

At another fringe event organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank, Jenrick said the government has "learned from some of the concerns" of the introduction of office-to-residential permitted development (PD) rights, and admitted that the policy has produced some "very bad examples". The review, Jenrick said, would examine "the first wave of permitted development, office-to-residential" and "look at whether there is evidence on the material level of poor-quality properties".

4. The government will allow councils to raise planning application fees in return for higher quality services, with applicants liable for a rebate if deadlines are missed. 

Jenrick told the Policy Exchange fringe event that the government wants to "get the planning system working in a much simpler and faster way" and to review it to "bring it into the 21st century". He said: "We are going to be looking at how we can give more capacity to local councils whose planning departments have been diminished in many respects so that people can get a good quality service. So that means somewhat higher fees, though not unreasonably, in return for good quality service. And we are also looking at an automatic rebate, where it makes sense, if those deadlines are missed." A subsequent statement from the MHCLG said the measure would form part of the forthcoming Accelerated Planning Green Paper.

More details here.

5. The government is set to create an "A-team" of experts to go around the country and help support under-resourced local authority planning teams.

McVey told a fringe event organised by the ConservativeHome website and the National House Building Council, that the government would address "the amount of bandwidth within local authority planning departments", adding: "Have they got all of the resources there?" McVey said some authorities were struggling to produce a local plan "because they don't feel they've got the wherewithal to do it". She said: "We are now going to have a sort of 'A-team' that can go out and help all of those authorities who can't quite do it. It is not clear if this measure will form part of the green paper.

More details here.

6. The government wants to make further changes to the planning system to make it more consumer-friendly for householders and small builders.

Jenrick told a fringe event organised by the free market Institute of Economic Affairs think tank that minister were "looking much more broadly" than the measures already announced. The first area of change would be focused on making it easier for "consumers", he said, to allow "people in their everyday lives trying to make changes to their homes". Secondly, the government wants to improve the planning system for small- and medium-sized builders "who are absolutely essential for the future of the industry". Finally, he said the government wants to focus on making it easier for "big developers who play an essential role in unlocking large parcels of land and getting major development done". 

More details here.

7. The government is looking at how it can "dramatically reduce" the number of planning conditions.

Jenrick told the Policy Exchange fringe event: "There's been a huge increase over my lifetime in the number of conditions on new buildings. We are looking at how we can do that in a more sane way so [developers] can get started and sort out the issue of pre-commencement so that things that don't happen until much later in the planning process don't need to be sorted out before shovels get in the ground. An MHCLG statement said the government wanted to reduce planning conditions "by a third" and the proposal would be included in the green paper.

More details here.

8. Ministers reiterated their commitment to green belt protection, but some local Tory politicians think rules should be relaxed.

Asked whether the government needs to look at relaxing rules on building on the green belt, Jenrick told the IEA fringe event it was not something that ministers were considering. He said: "We have chosen to go for building on brownfield sites, for greater liberalisations like building upwards, densification in urban areas. I hear the arguments. Some parts of the green belt are not particularly beautiful but it's not our priority to take on that issue."

Meanwhile, McVey told a similar message to several fringe events. At one hosted by the ConservativeHome website and industry body the National House Building Council, she said: "We have to make sure that we're building on brownfield sites first. I think on the latest figures, you could have one million more homes on those brownfield sites. And that's what we've got to look to first before we do anything. Because green belt is only to be used in exceptional circumstances."

However, support for a review of the green belt was voiced by some Conservatives in local government. Ian Hudspeth, the leader of Oxfordshire County Council, told a fringe event organised by the Town and Country Planning Association that he called it the "green constraint"  and said some of the most sustainable development sites in Oxfordshire were in the green belt. He said: "I don't want to concrete over the countryside, but shouldn't we be having green corridors or green fingers reaching out into the countryside?"

9. Ministers are considering further planning reform around town centres. 

Jenrick said ministers "want to see whether there are further planning reforms we can do to help people assemble land, to regenerate land and to get housing into town centres". Meanwhile, Jake Berry, the local growth minister, told a fringe event on high streets organised by the Spectator magazine and building society Nationwide, that the planning system should "move out of the way" to allow town centres to thrive. Berry said the use class order "is long overdue for a refresh" because it restricts change of use between different high street uses and does not accommodate mixed-use shops. But he said a balance needed to be struck between deregulation and allowing local authorities to "have the power to shape their high streets". 

More details here.

10. The communities secretary wants to encourage more district councils to merge into new unitary authorities to help them deal strategically with housing and transport.

Jenrick was speaking at a fringe event organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank. He said: "I do think we need to move towards a model that provides a better value for money for taxpayers, and you're able to look much more strategically at these challenges like housing and transport. I will certainly be encouraging local councils to move in that direction."

More details here.

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