Peter Golds: The skewed enforcement priorities of Tower Hamlets Council

21 Oct

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Here are two matters of concern taking place on the same road. They give an indication as to why my local authority has problems with the public.

My first example concerns a single mother living in a house with her daughter. She is qualified in both banking and architecture and holds a responsible job with a major corporation. In order to work, she employs a properly registered child-minder and ensures that all tax and national insurance with regard to the child-minder is paid and correctly recorded. She is, by any standard, a model citizen and is both active and popular within her local community.

A while ago, and to her surprise, she suddenly received correspondence from the borough’s council tax that she was living with a person aged over 18. She was quickly able to prove that she lived with her daughter and a dog.

Next, and very disturbingly, she received an early morning visit from two officers from the council’s social services. They were checking allegations of “neglect of her child” and “illegal employment.” This was easily proven to be false, but the resident lost a day’s work. I was approached, as the local councillor, to see where the council stood in this. I got no further than the council has to investigate all allegations.

This was followed by a formal visit from Ofsted investigating a complaint that this resident was operating an “unlicensed child care facility,” where a child was being neglected. This was again quickly proven to be untrue, confirming the presence at the address of a registered carer looking after a single child, at home, whilst the parent was at work.

Then she began to receive, on a daily basis, addressed envelopes with nothing inside. The police were contacted but undertook no investigation despite being made aware that this appeared to be part of an ongoing campaign of harassment of a single woman living alone with a child.

The most recent problem she had was while replacing rear doors and windows. To ensure this was in order she obtained a “certificate of lawfulness” from the council’s planning department and went ahead. One morning recently, a man appeared at her front door, saying that he was from Tower Hamlets council’s building control department investigating a complaint and demanding entrance to view the work. He flashed an official council pass, but would not permit the resident to photograph the pass or take details. After a stand off, she secured the name of the officer. Despite producing the council’s certificate of lawfulness, an inspection took place. It is obvious that somebody, somewhere, aware that planning was completely lawful, complained to building control, who appeared not to work with planning within the same local authority.

This completely law-abiding and popular local citizen, facing continuous harassment and vexatious complaints, then sought information as to the source of these incidents via the Freedom of Information process. This has been refused by Tower Hamlets Council. The question I have asked is how much longer will this continue and how many other council departments will be involved? Equally, the police should be taking this seriously. We have a single, law-abiding woman, living with a child, facing an ongoing and organised campaign of harassment and threats. She deserves more than a CAD number.

Further up the same road is a small housing development called Thames Circle. It includes some flats and a row of town houses around a circle. Within the area is an uncompleted piece of land for which planning permission for a block of flats was given eighteen years ago – but the consent lapsed. For a period, portacabins were placed in this area and used by a local school on a temporary planning consent. The council declined to extend the temporary planning consent for the school and it moved elsewhere.

A few months ago portacabins arrived on the site and a takeaway kitchen commenced operation. This involved preparing food for adjoining residencies and a local Church, and the distribution of the food by car, scooter, and bicycle. The scooters are all badged with an L plate. Thames Circle is off a busy major A road, with bus routes, one of which operates 24/7 and on a curve. Scooters and cycles moving in and out of the development, dodging traffic and ignoring the local speed limit, on top of the emissions and smell from the kitchens do not add to the quality of life.

I met residents and made enquiries of the council who wrote to me to confirm that the site does not have planning consent for the operation of the kitchens. The council has “an ongoing inspection concerning smoke complaints” and no licence has been issued to the operator regarding licensable activities. In addition, I discovered that there is no traffic management scheme. The operator ultimately applied for a retrospective planning application in June but there was “missing information that would be required to be able to make it valid and add to the planning register.”

In short, this is a business operating without planning or licensing, while the council took no enforcement action whatsoever.

We have two important council concerns on the same road, just a short distance apart. There is a completely innocent woman facing a campaign of harassment by a person or persons who are manipulating the council to harass a resident, whilst the same council departments are unable to deal with an illegal operation.

Across the borough, Tower Hamlets Council spent, between January 2019 and August 2020, the sum of £2,660,000 on “liveable streets” projects. Of that sum, £978,000 was spent on preliminary design to “inform consultation workshops.” The result has been chaos in parts of the borough, with roads suddenly closed and concerns about access to emergency vehicles.

Yet on the Isle of Dogs, there is a road where residents lives are a misery due to anti-social behaviour which can be traced to parking bays, and avoided by residents because of drug dealers. Residents, supported by the police, have been asking the council to remove the parking bays and extend the pavement. Despite spending over £2.5 million on “liveable streets” the council response to these residents with genuine problems is – organise a petition…

Peter Golds: The skewed enforcement priorities of Tower Hamlets Council

21 Oct

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Here are two matters of concern taking place on the same road. They give an indication as to why my local authority has problems with the public.

My first example concerns a single mother living in a house with her daughter. She is qualified in both banking and architecture and holds a responsible job with a major corporation. In order to work, she employs a properly registered child-minder and ensures that all tax and national insurance with regard to the child-minder is paid and correctly recorded. She is, by any standard, a model citizen and is both active and popular within her local community.

A while ago, and to her surprise, she suddenly received correspondence from the borough’s council tax that she was living with a person aged over 18. She was quickly able to prove that she lived with her daughter and a dog.

Next, and very disturbingly, she received an early morning visit from two officers from the council’s social services. They were checking allegations of “neglect of her child” and “illegal employment.” This was easily proven to be false, but the resident lost a day’s work. I was approached, as the local councillor, to see where the council stood in this. I got no further than the council has to investigate all allegations.

This was followed by a formal visit from Ofsted investigating a complaint that this resident was operating an “unlicensed child care facility,” where a child was being neglected. This was again quickly proven to be untrue, confirming the presence at the address of a registered carer looking after a single child, at home, whilst the parent was at work.

Then she began to receive, on a daily basis, addressed envelopes with nothing inside. The police were contacted but undertook no investigation despite being made aware that this appeared to be part of an ongoing campaign of harassment of a single woman living alone with a child.

The most recent problem she had was while replacing rear doors and windows. To ensure this was in order she obtained a “certificate of lawfulness” from the council’s planning department and went ahead. One morning recently, a man appeared at her front door, saying that he was from Tower Hamlets council’s building control department investigating a complaint and demanding entrance to view the work. He flashed an official council pass, but would not permit the resident to photograph the pass or take details. After a stand off, she secured the name of the officer. Despite producing the council’s certificate of lawfulness, an inspection took place. It is obvious that somebody, somewhere, aware that planning was completely lawful, complained to building control, who appeared not to work with planning within the same local authority.

This completely law-abiding and popular local citizen, facing continuous harassment and vexatious complaints, then sought information as to the source of these incidents via the Freedom of Information process. This has been refused by Tower Hamlets Council. The question I have asked is how much longer will this continue and how many other council departments will be involved? Equally, the police should be taking this seriously. We have a single, law-abiding woman, living with a child, facing an ongoing and organised campaign of harassment and threats. She deserves more than a CAD number.

Further up the same road is a small housing development called Thames Circle. It includes some flats and a row of town houses around a circle. Within the area is an uncompleted piece of land for which planning permission for a block of flats was given eighteen years ago – but the consent lapsed. For a period, portacabins were placed in this area and used by a local school on a temporary planning consent. The council declined to extend the temporary planning consent for the school and it moved elsewhere.

A few months ago portacabins arrived on the site and a takeaway kitchen commenced operation. This involved preparing food for adjoining residencies and a local Church, and the distribution of the food by car, scooter, and bicycle. The scooters are all badged with an L plate. Thames Circle is off a busy major A road, with bus routes, one of which operates 24/7 and on a curve. Scooters and cycles moving in and out of the development, dodging traffic and ignoring the local speed limit, on top of the emissions and smell from the kitchens do not add to the quality of life.

I met residents and made enquiries of the council who wrote to me to confirm that the site does not have planning consent for the operation of the kitchens. The council has “an ongoing inspection concerning smoke complaints” and no licence has been issued to the operator regarding licensable activities. In addition, I discovered that there is no traffic management scheme. The operator ultimately applied for a retrospective planning application in June but there was “missing information that would be required to be able to make it valid and add to the planning register.”

In short, this is a business operating without planning or licensing, while the council took no enforcement action whatsoever.

We have two important council concerns on the same road, just a short distance apart. There is a completely innocent woman facing a campaign of harassment by a person or persons who are manipulating the council to harass a resident, whilst the same council departments are unable to deal with an illegal operation.

Across the borough, Tower Hamlets Council spent, between January 2019 and August 2020, the sum of £2,660,000 on “liveable streets” projects. Of that sum, £978,000 was spent on preliminary design to “inform consultation workshops.” The result has been chaos in parts of the borough, with roads suddenly closed and concerns about access to emergency vehicles.

Yet on the Isle of Dogs, there is a road where residents lives are a misery due to anti-social behaviour which can be traced to parking bays, and avoided by residents because of drug dealers. Residents, supported by the police, have been asking the council to remove the parking bays and extend the pavement. Despite spending over £2.5 million on “liveable streets” the council response to these residents with genuine problems is – organise a petition…

Peter Golds: The skewed enforcement priorities of Tower Hamlets Council

21 Oct

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Here are two matters of concern taking place on the same road. They give an indication as to why my local authority has problems with the public.

My first example concerns a single mother living in a house with her daughter. She is qualified in both banking and architecture and holds a responsible job with a major corporation. In order to work, she employs a properly registered child-minder and ensures that all tax and national insurance with regard to the child-minder is paid and correctly recorded. She is, by any standard, a model citizen and is both active and popular within her local community.

A while ago, and to her surprise, she suddenly received correspondence from the borough’s council tax that she was living with a person aged over 18. She was quickly able to prove that she lived with her daughter and a dog.

Next, and very disturbingly, she received an early morning visit from two officers from the council’s social services. They were checking allegations of “neglect of her child” and “illegal employment.” This was easily proven to be false, but the resident lost a day’s work. I was approached, as the local councillor, to see where the council stood in this. I got no further than the council has to investigate all allegations.

This was followed by a formal visit from Ofsted investigating a complaint that this resident was operating an “unlicensed child care facility,” where a child was being neglected. This was again quickly proven to be untrue, confirming the presence at the address of a registered carer looking after a single child, at home, whilst the parent was at work.

Then she began to receive, on a daily basis, addressed envelopes with nothing inside. The police were contacted but undertook no investigation despite being made aware that this appeared to be part of an ongoing campaign of harassment of a single woman living alone with a child.

The most recent problem she had was while replacing rear doors and windows. To ensure this was in order she obtained a “certificate of lawfulness” from the council’s planning department and went ahead. One morning recently, a man appeared at her front door, saying that he was from Tower Hamlets council’s building control department investigating a complaint and demanding entrance to view the work. He flashed an official council pass, but would not permit the resident to photograph the pass or take details. After a stand off, she secured the name of the officer. Despite producing the council’s certificate of lawfulness, an inspection took place. It is obvious that somebody, somewhere, aware that planning was completely lawful, complained to building control, who appeared not to work with planning within the same local authority.

This completely law-abiding and popular local citizen, facing continuous harassment and vexatious complaints, then sought information as to the source of these incidents via the Freedom of Information process. This has been refused by Tower Hamlets Council. The question I have asked is how much longer will this continue and how many other council departments will be involved? Equally, the police should be taking this seriously. We have a single, law-abiding woman, living with a child, facing an ongoing and organised campaign of harassment and threats. She deserves more than a CAD number.

Further up the same road is a small housing development called Thames Circle. It includes some flats and a row of town houses around a circle. Within the area is an uncompleted piece of land for which planning permission for a block of flats was given eighteen years ago – but the consent lapsed. For a period, portacabins were placed in this area and used by a local school on a temporary planning consent. The council declined to extend the temporary planning consent for the school and it moved elsewhere.

A few months ago portacabins arrived on the site and a takeaway kitchen commenced operation. This involved preparing food for adjoining residencies and a local Church, and the distribution of the food by car, scooter, and bicycle. The scooters are all badged with an L plate. Thames Circle is off a busy major A road, with bus routes, one of which operates 24/7 and on a curve. Scooters and cycles moving in and out of the development, dodging traffic and ignoring the local speed limit, on top of the emissions and smell from the kitchens do not add to the quality of life.

I met residents and made enquiries of the council who wrote to me to confirm that the site does not have planning consent for the operation of the kitchens. The council has “an ongoing inspection concerning smoke complaints” and no licence has been issued to the operator regarding licensable activities. In addition, I discovered that there is no traffic management scheme. The operator ultimately applied for a retrospective planning application in June but there was “missing information that would be required to be able to make it valid and add to the planning register.”

In short, this is a business operating without planning or licensing, while the council took no enforcement action whatsoever.

We have two important council concerns on the same road, just a short distance apart. There is a completely innocent woman facing a campaign of harassment by a person or persons who are manipulating the council to harass a resident, whilst the same council departments are unable to deal with an illegal operation.

Across the borough, Tower Hamlets Council spent, between January 2019 and August 2020, the sum of £2,660,000 on “liveable streets” projects. Of that sum, £978,000 was spent on preliminary design to “inform consultation workshops.” The result has been chaos in parts of the borough, with roads suddenly closed and concerns about access to emergency vehicles.

Yet on the Isle of Dogs, there is a road where residents lives are a misery due to anti-social behaviour which can be traced to parking bays, and avoided by residents because of drug dealers. Residents, supported by the police, have been asking the council to remove the parking bays and extend the pavement. Despite spending over £2.5 million on “liveable streets” the council response to these residents with genuine problems is – organise a petition…

Neil O’Brien: Planning reform needs to be handled with care

10 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

The White Paper on planning is out. Will it solve our housing crisis?

Obviously, reforming planning can only be part of the solution.

For starters, half the issue is about demand, not just supply of new homes. The government can shape demand: limiting immigration, using tax and credit policy to encourage funding to flow into businesses, not property speculation.

Likewise, declining homeownership reflects not just undersupply, but a choice to grow the rented sector with tax advantages. Over the decade to 2016 we added 165,000 privately-owned homes a year. But 195,000 homes were transferred into the private rented sector. So more homes were owned privately but by fewer people. We could use tax to increase homeownership instead.

Even on the supply side, planning’s only part of the picture. The Letwin Review highlighted how developers build out slowly to keep prices up. Page 37 of the White Paper promises: “we will explore further options to support faster build-out”.

So this paper only covers one part of the housing picture.

But it’s still important, and there are four big ideas in it.

Most of them I like, but there are risks.

1) Faster, simpler plan making.  

Making a local plan takes seven years on average, involving councils spending loads on consultants drawing up dozens of reports which no-one ever looks at again. With plans up to 500 pages long and supporting documents up to ten times that, we can surely simplify.

The White Paper proposes a time limit on drawing up a plan (30 months) and cutting the number of documents required. Plans will be “two thirds” shorter.

It’s a good idea. The risk is a backlash.  The paper notes that having all three of “Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal, and Environmental Impact Assessment – can lead to duplication of effort and overly long reports which inhibit transparency and add unnecessary delays.” But making things simpler without annoying conservation-minded voters will require care.

2) Simpler, more useful, developer contributions and (maybe) more benefit for the community. 

At present “Section 106” contributions made by developers are opaque, and developers spend yonks arguing the toss over how much they’ll pay. For builders, it’s like an Arabic carpet shop where you waste hours haggling just to find out the price.

But residents also lose out, because crazy rules constrain how funds for the community can be spent: so tightly, money is often returned to the developer.

The White Paper proposes replacing Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) – which only half of councils use – with a single, simpler levy. A welcome part of the proposal is that 25 per cent of revenues will stay in the parish they are raised in.

In principle, it’s great. But the detail is key. The paper is ambiguous about whether the new levy should raise more overall. It should: my constituents are driven mad seeing developers making massive windfall profits while dumping onto taxpayers the cost of the necessary infrastructure for new homes.

The paper proposes setting a minimum amount of the levy to be spent on affordable housing. I don’t agree. Councils should be able to choose for themselves whether they want more social housing, or to spend more on new schools, bypasses or superfast broadband instead.

The paper’s lead option is to create a single, nationally-set levy, with one rate for the whole country. Simple, but that would create big winners and losers. The paper keeps open the option of a single levy, but councils still setting their own rate (which sounds more sensible).

Extending the levy to homes created through change of use is questionable: do we want to tax brownfield regeneration?

3) Simpler, faster assessment of need.  

Presently, councils spend ages and pots of cash working out how many homes they need to plan for. Because of the difficult politics and risk of legal challenge, they hire a bunch of expensive consultants (them again) who basically take the ONS population forecast for the area, stick their finger in the air, do some magic, add and subtract a bit for various local factors and… often end up back where they started, around the ONS population forecast.

The White Paper proposes a more standardised formula which will spit out a target number based on population growth, up-weighted for things like demand, but down-weighted for various local constraints like greenbelt.

It’s a bold move, as lots of councils and MPs will argue with whatever figures the national formula spits out for them. The actual formula will be key to whether it succeeds or leads to a backlash: I’ve argued before for increasing the numbers in inner urban areas for environmental reasons and deliverability. It might be wise to have a bit of flexibility as a safety valve to let councils propose their own approaches: some will always have idiosyncratic factors which aren’t in the national formula.

4) Zoning. 

The most novel idea in the paper, “zoning”, is the one that I’m most unsure about. Zoning is common around the world, but means very different things in different countries. Page 25 of the paper proposes a wide range of options.

The basic idea is that sites put in the local plan for development will be taken to have outline planning permission. Many councils say this is unnecessary: they don’t refuse planning permission on sites they’ve put in their plans.

Some campaigners, in contrast, take this as signalling the start of a planning “free for all”. But the paper is clear that councils will be able to set, for each site, outline controls over things like the heights and density of buildings.

My concern is that because it will be harder to say yes or no to a specific design, councils may feel they just have to set more prescriptive rules upfront to control development.

In my experience as a constituency MP, as much of the concern about new homes is driven by (legitimate) concerns about flooding, parking, traffic and construction as the actual new homes. Limiting councils’ discretion in some ways, but not in others, could lead to a lot of fuss for little real change.

The lead option in the paper creates a new middle category of “renewal” areas, where development is not approved or forbidden, but there is a statutory presumption for things like densification. Gentle densification can be good, but I’m sceptical such changes can be waved through in principle, rather than looking case by case.

There are some underplayed aspects of the paper. It notes that 50 per cent of councils don’t have a plan, but doesn’t say much new about handling councils that won’t adopt one. It’s silent on how large developers lock out small builders through opaque land optioning.

More than anything I would welcome more consideration of the underlying reasons why voters oppose new development: that we build piecemeal, on the kind of infill sites on the edges of villages and towns that most annoy people. That we combine some of the least dense cities in Europe and the most geographically unbalanced economy. The housing problem can’t be solved in isolation, and we need a vision of where we are to build, not just a formula.

The White Paper is a radical document. There are some great things in it, but it contains some ideas that need a lot of thought and careful handling.

Howard Flight: Parkinson’s Law revisited

3 Aug

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

An old friend of mine sent me a very interesting article on Parkinson’s Law Today. The theoretical law of the 1950s has changed to a mathematical equation describing the rate at which bureaucracies expand over time. Two different case studies of our times are financial regulators and the NHS. The numbers employed in both territories continue to grow way beyond any practical justification.

There are some fascinating facts supporting the arguments. At a time when the British Empire was in decline, the Colonial Office had its greatest number of staff who were folded into the Foreign Office, due to a lack of colonies to administer! Such contrarian growth is explained by two key factors – officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and officials make work for each other. The number of people employed in a bureaucracy tends to rise by between five and seven per cent a year. That was irrespective of any variation in the amount of work – if any – to be done.

Parkinson also proposed a rule about the efficiency of Administrative Council. He defined a coefficient of inefficiency with the number of members as the main determining variable. This is an attempt to define the size at which a committee or other decision-making Body will become wholly inefficient, if not useless. In Parkinson’s Law, “The Pursuit of Progress”, a chapter is devoted to the basic question of what Parkinson called Comitology – how committees, government candidates, and other such Bodies are created and eventually grow irrelevant, if they are not initially designated as such. Interestingly the world Comitology has recently been invented independently by the EU for a different non-humorous meaning. Empirical evidence is extracted from historical and contemporary government candidates. Most frequently the minimal size of a States’ most powerful and prestigious Body is five members.

From English history, Parkinson notes a number of bodys that lost power as they grew.

The First Cabinet was the Council of the Crown, now the House of Lords which grew from a handful to 29, and then to 50 by 1600 by which time it had lost most of its power. A new Body in 1257 numbering fewer than 10; it grew to 172 members and ceased to meet. The third incarnation was the Privy Council, initially numbering less than 10 members but rising to 47 in 1679. In 1715 the Privy Council lost power to the Cabinet Council with eight members, rising to 20 by 1725. Around 1740 the Cabinet Council was superseded by an inner group called the Cabinet, initially with five members. In the 1950s the Cabinet was still the official governing Body. From 1939 until the 1950’s there was an effort to save the Cabinet as an institution. Membership had been fluctuating from a high of 23 down to 18 in 1954.

Parkinson proposed a detailed mathematical expression for the coefficient of inefficiency, featuring many possible influences. In 2008 an attempt was made to verify empirically the proposed model. Parkinson thought that membership exceeding around 20 makes a committee manifestly inefficient. Less certain is the optimal number of members which is somewhere between three and 20. For a group of 20, individual discussions may dilute the power of the leader. Common sense suggests eight may be the optimum number, but this is not supported by observations. No contemporary Government in Parkinson’s data set had eight members and only the unfortunate Charles 1st had a committee of State of that size.

This territory should merit regular measurement, reviews, and analysis. It is painfully clear to citizens that when organisations become too big, they also become inefficient and vulnerable.

Increases in NHS staff have accounted for nearly all the increase in public sector jobs – numbers now stand at 1.75 million, 32 per cent of all public sector jobs and five per cent of all jobs in the UK. It is surely self-evident to conclude that a monolithic approach to providing and managing healthcare makes no sense and invites bad experience and outturn. Logically the unit size should be broken down to leadership teams of under 20 with sufficient staff numbers to operate the range of services provided by each particular hospital. Staff could be lent to and borrowed by particular hospitals as and when required. Accountability should probably be to the relevant local authority, Cabinet or constituency MPs.

Civil Service jobs hit a record low in 2016 but have been increasing again recently. Currently, they stand at 460,000. There are nearly four times as many people working in the NHS as there are in the Civil Service.

This is the territory which the Chancellor needs to research and examine in detail. It is probable that Civil Service numbers could be reduced by 60,000 to 400,000 with anybody scarcely noticing. This should save of the order £500 million a year. The NHS is a more difficult proposition as a result of the support it has achieved for dealing honourably with COVID-19 patients. My view is that restructuring into manageable sized units is the key to better and greater efficiency and that in time it too could effect cost savings of £50m pa.

Peter Gibson: Set the high street free

2 Jul

Peter Gibson is the MP for Darlington

Nobody can doubt the scale of the challenge facing our high streets and town centres as we look to rebuild our economy following this pandemic.

As many towns bid against one another looking for funds from the ambitious Future High Street Fund, my patch of Darlington included, it is necessary to acknowledge that fundamentally what our town centres lack is people.

The bustling high street of yesteryear, stacked with BHS and Woolworths, will never exist again. We have generations of decisions to thank for that: out-of-town shopping, pedestrianisation making access and collection ever more difficult, and local authority car parking charges, to name just a few. Buttressed by shifts in lifestyles and technology, these changes have led us to a world in which every conceivable item can be purchased online.

Our town centres are firmly rooted in the idea of the marketplace, around which local economies have grown. Yet you no longer need to buy your bread from the baker or your meat from the butcher. Now the supermarket will deliver it. You don’t even need to drive into town because the inner ring-road circumnavigates it.

Planning in more recent times has either been the guardian or, more often, the be-devilment of the beating heart of our town centre. Our current restrictions are not fit for purpose and are damaging the very essence of our communities.

The classification of property into use-classes – tablets of stone that allow town halls up and down the land to tell us what we can and cannot do within our property – are the embodiment of this red tape, blocking the renewal of our high streets. They prevent vacant commercial property from being reclassified as residential property. Our enterprises need flexibility and adaptability in order to innovate and grow. As Conservatives, we should do all we can to unlock that innovation and growth.

At a time where we are seeing more and more vacant commercial properties in town centres, and with speculation rife that in a post-COVID world many more will be working remotely, this means red tape has been getting in the way of an enormous opportunity to build homes.

This is not only bad for city-dwellers, who lose out from housing shortages and get priced out of the market by a lack of supply, but also a missed opportunity for the economy, which could benefit from a low-cost way of mobilising private capital to improve macro-productivity.

Even before this pandemic truly struck our economy, we knew that swathes of our retail landscape were surplus to requirements. In March, figures showed a vacancy rate of 12.2%. And though the Government has provided unprecedented levels of support to our high street businesses – no business rates this year, the furlough scheme, and small business cash grants, to name just a few measures – we know that vacancy rates, sadly, will rise significantly over the next few months as these schemes are unwound and some businesses never return.

Many towns’ arterial roads that were filled with houses that have become shops and offices now see vacant spaces opening up, leaving gaps and sapping the spirit of the town centre. We need to enable those properties to more easily revert to residential use, and as the need for commercial and retail space in the centre contracts we need to ensure that a diverse range of people move in. Not just students, not just starter homes, but homes suitable for our elderly who can easily walk into town, homes suitable for our disabled people enabling them to access services directly, and homes suitable for growing families with children.

While businesses will always rise and fall, our national ‘animal spirit’ will always endure. This is why the planning reforms announced by the Prime Minister this week are so welcome. By removing the red tape around the use of property and brownfield land, we are giving high streets and town centres a chance to be reborn – as a place to live, take your kids, meet your friends, or whatever local people – rather than planners – want.