'Utter contempt': Government orders Havering to approve more houses

Damian White and Jon Cruddas comment on Havering Council's planning predicament

Government has curbed Havering Council's planning powers, saying the borough is not building enough houses - but politicians on all sides are unhappy about it. - Credit: Havering Council / Getty Images / Pawel Szewczyk

Politicians fear Havering could become a magnet for cramped tower blocks, after the government curbed its planning powers to punish it for not building enough houses.

The change makes it harder for councillors to reject applications for housing developments.

The council said it had approved thousands of homes but developers had failed to build them.

Rainham Labour MP Jon Cruddas said the intervention showed "utter contempt” for residents. 

What has happened?

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The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has clipped the wings of 52 councils who did not deliver at least 75 per cent of their three-year house-building targets.

Between 2017/18 and 2019/20, it says 3,414 new homes should have been built in Havering – but only 1,238 were delivered.

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As a “consequence”, Havering must now consider planning applications under a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

The change means councillors must give more weight to national housing needs than local considerations.

The MHCLG said the council “should approve applications for housing unless there are clear reasons not to”.

Cllr Graham Williamson from Havering Council

Hornchurch councillor Graham Williamson said he feared government restricting Havering's planning powers would lead to dense over-development. - Credit: Archant

Councillor Graham Williamson said he believed Havering had a “special character”, setting it apart from other London boroughs.

"We're a large borough but we’re 52pc green belt,” he said. “This change means that special character is no longer supposed to be taken into account.

“I think the consequence will be either brownfield sites being over-developed with high density tower blocks, or green belt will come into play.”

Who is to blame?

Andrew Curtin, from the Romford Civic Society, said he believed good quality housing plans had been lost due to “cynical” political campaigning.

“I think Romford councillors have effectively created the conditions for this,” he said. “It seems to us that there is no coherent policy.”

The Civic Society aims to protect Romford’s character and environment. It has backed housing schemes which councillors blocked.

“There’s an application for 1,100 flats at the Seedbed Centre site - very good architects, very green, includes plans to naturalise the river,” he said. “We supported that, but Romford councillors put out leaflets opposing it.

“But just up the road, they’re backing 1,400 flats on the Waterloo Road estate, with half as much children’s playing space as there should be.”

Andrew Curtin from the Romford Civic Society

Andrew Curtin, from the Romford Civic Society, said he felt 'cynical' political campaigning had blocked good quality housing projects. - Credit: Archant

But Havering's Residents Associations (HRA) said they did not blame the Tory administration.

They said government had set “unrealistic” housing targets, which the council relied on developers to deliver.

They said developers were “land banking” instead of building, adding: “These delays have, unfairly, been held against the council."

Rewarding failure? 

Council leader Damian White agreed.

“The council granted planning permission for thousands of new homes,” he said. “Had these been built, we would have easily met the test’s target of 3,414 homes.

“Unfortunately, it seems that there are developers that have been granted planning permission, but are not building new homes – something we will have to investigate further.”

Havering Council leader Damian White

Havering Council leader Damian White said the authority needed to investigate developers who gained planning permission and then failed to build. - Credit: Mark Sepple

The Royal Town Planning Institute warned in 2019 that the rules provided “a strong disincentive to housing developers to deliver”.

Its report said that if developers gain planning permission but fail to build, the council is punished by having its powers curbed, making it easier for those developers to gain approval for projects which might previously have been blocked.

“This rewards the developer for failing to develop,” it said.

Cllr Williamson said he feared the consequences were “already happening”, citing the former Romford ice rink site.

In 2018, permission was granted for 620 homes, which were never built.

This spring a new application, for 1,050 homes, will be considered.

An "independent quality review panel” has raised concerns that the number of homes “is simply too high to allow for the creation of a high-quality neighbourhood”.

Jon Cruddas MP criticised government for interfering with Havering's planning.

Rainham MP Jon Cruddas said government curbing Havering's planning powers would aid 'fat cat developers' instead of residents. - Credit: Andrew Achilleos

Mr Cruddas said he felt Havering was building a “woefully inadequate number of homes... that are truly affordable for local people”.

However, he said the intervention “will be great news for fat cat developers, but offers precious little for local families in real housing need.”

Conservative MPs Andrew Rosindell and Julia Lopez did not respond to requests for comment.

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