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Fiddling while UK economy burns?

Planning without action is futile, action without planning is fatal

Hmm. Do I sense a degree of rearranging the deckchairs on The Titanic here?

The Government has made a couple of announcements lately that really do make you wonder what planet they are living on. It certainly doesn’t seem to me the one that the rest of us are struggling along on.

There’s the planning permission “holiday” to relax some of the requirements of Permitted Development”, i.e. what can be done to a dwelling without the need for planning permission for starters.

And yesterday, we had Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander (I’m sure he’s a very nice, capable chap, but to me he still looks like he wandered into the office looking for the photocopier and ended up being given the job by mistake) announcing the National Infrastructure Plan Strategic Engagement Forum.

This will bring government and industry together to help deliver the UK’s infrastructure needs.

What everyone except the Government seems to realise is that none of this will really do anything to help the situation now. Because that’s when we need it, not in eight years time when the next big infrastructure project comes on stream, not even in two years when the next big infrastructure project starts being built. Now.

The planning permission holiday is supposedly to free-up the work that is stuck in the planning process, by allowing certain projects to bypass the eight-week-or-so waiting period. On the face of it, this is super news for builders merchants and jobbing builders for whom the RMI and extensions market is the bread-and-butter business.

However, to look at the comments underneath the BBC News story about it you’d think that Cameron & Clegg announced a building free-for-all which will see the green belt paved over and architectural monstrosities erected all over our suburbs.

For a start, all this is about is extending what you can do under Permitted Development which, while it is quite a lot, is not everything. Anyone wanting to add a double-storey side extension, or a rear extension that is more than eight metres from the back wall or who live in a conservation area or whose plans are bigger than a certain percentage of the original building, will still require planning permission.

Plus, stuff will still need to go through building control and be passed by Building Regs, so it’s not as though we’re going to see a whole row of Taj Mahals built on the side of a few semis in Sevenoaks.

I spoke to an architect the day this was announced and asked him if he thought it would make any difference. He looked at me as if I were mad – to his mind, the only thing that will make any difference at all is reducing the rate of VAT.

He knows that. I know that. We all know that. The only people who don’t seem to know that are the Government – although the previous lot didn’t listen to the argument either.

I’m not sure I really understand the logic of the planning permission holiday either.

Are the Government saying that it is the rigours of the planning department requirements that is stopping people from building extensions? Are they absolutely sure that what’s stopping people from building and renovating isn’t the fact that no-one’s got any money or job security or confidence?

I’m not.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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