16 Apr 2013

Revolt forces extension plans rethink

Plans to make it easier for homeowners to build larger extensions are to be reconsidered after the government suffers a backbench revolt and near defeat.

In an effort to revive the construction industry, the government announced that it wanted to double the permitted length of extensions before planning permission was required.

But following heavy criticism from Tory backbenchers and the opposition, who claimed that the measures would do little to get construction moving, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles today told the House of Commons that “in the spirit of consensus” the proposals would be “revised”.

He will return next week with an amended set of measures.

Mr Pickles said: “I can announce today that in the spirit of consensus, we will bring forward a revised approach on the contentious question of permitted development rights for home extensions when the Bill returns to the Lords.

“I believe that this is eminently bridgeable and I would like the opportunity to make that bridge.

Read more: FactCheck – Can Labour save the economy?

The announcement was made as the Commons voted on the reforms. Last month, the House of Lords had tabled an amendment to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill to give local authorities the power to opt out.

Tory and Lib Dem rebels wanted to keep the change in the bill, although the government wanted to reject it.

Despite the concession by Mr Pickles, the government’s majority was reduced to just 27 after Tory and Lib Dem MPs voted with Labour. They won the vote to block the amendment by 286 votes to 259.

During the debate, MPs heard how the changes would have meant that permitted extensions could double to eight metres for detached houses, and six metres for others.

The jobs war
"We are desperately short of family-sized houses. This is an opportunity to kick-start local economies," the Conservative MP Heather Wheeler had said.
The government had hoped that 40,000 families a year would benefit from the extension proposals. They estimated that 20,000 new extensions alone would generate up to £600m in construction, and "support" up to 18,000 jobs.
But Labour claimed that they were focusing on the wrong problem. They said that the main barrier to building was not regulation, but lack of finance by families.
Instead, Labour they proposed a cut in VAT on home improvement repairs. The National Federation of Builders said that five per cent VAT could create more than 26,000 jobs in the construction sector and around £1.7bn alone.
Building a new home creates 1.5 jobs in construction, and a further three in secondary industries such as home decoration, according to the Home Builders' Federation.

Although the rule that extensions should not take up more than half of the garden was to be retained, Tory rebels said that they would lead to disputes among neighbours.

Zac Goldsmith MP, who did not support the government, told BBC Radio 4 earlier: “It will guarantee disputes between neighbours, I don’t think anyone doubts that. It will be very unpopular and there is no evidence, as far as I can see, that is going to solve any problems at all.

“It seems like very bad, clumsy politics.”

Andrew Bingham MP told the House of Commons: “We’ve heard about monstrous carbuncles, I think we could end up with a lot of small warts on properties.”

Labour had denied that the move would have been better for the economy, arguging in favour of a VAT cut for home improvements and repairs instead.

Shadow communities and local government secretary Hilary Benn said: “We know they are not going to achieve the boost to the economy that he’s suggested, they’ve engendered an enormous amount of concern and opposition from members of the House, organisations, local authorities and others.”

However MPs remained cautious, saying that they needed to see the detail of the new measures.

Cheryl Gillan, the former Welsh secretary, said: “Will you forgive me if I want to wait to see what your proposals are because this has caused a great deal of grief to my district council, Chilterns District Council and many of our district councils across the country?

“I am afraid we are not going to believe what you say at that Despatch Box until we see it in black and white.”