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  • Writer's pictureInvestment Synergy Team

Housebuilder sues Michael Gove for blocking ‘generic’ properties

May 1 2023, The Times Tom Howard

One of the country’s biggest housebuilders is taking Michael Gove to court over his decision to block one of its developments because he did not like the look of the homes.

Berkeley Homes has written to the housing secretary informing him that it intends to challenge his “irrational decision” to overrule planning inspectors and refuse permission for the 165-home development in Kent. It wants him to “agree to the immediate quashing of [his] decision”.

It's fair to say - there are a lot of unprepossessing, not to say ugly, homes in this country, many a legacy of brutalist and insensitive development. Somehow, British architects and builders in the post-war period failed regularly to replicate what their Victorian, Edwardian and inter-war counterparts so often achieved: homes that were not only practical but pleasing on the eye. So, Michael Gove, the housing secretary, should not be mocked when he calls for more beautiful house designs, ones which chime with their surroundings and “lift the heart”.

However, there are limits to how far this insistence on aesthetic perfection should be allowed to govern housebuilding in a country chronically short of affordable homes. In his eagerness to foster an attractive built environment, Mr Gove is at risk of deterring developers from investing in schemes they fear may fall foul of his tastes. Gove said Berkeley’s plans for the homes were of a “generic suburban nature” and did not “reflect the expectations” of the local design code. The homes were due to be built in Crane Valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty 16 miles from Tunbridge Wells.

In April 2021, the then-secretary of state called in the application. An independent inspector completed a report into it and this was submitted to ministers. The inspector recommended that the application be approved and permission granted, subject to conditions.

However, Gove then decided to refuse permission. A letter dated April 6 which details his thinking says that “the harm to the landscape and scenic beauty... attracts great weight”.

The decision is believed to be the first time Gove has used his powers as housing secretary to block a development on aesthetic grounds since he pledged last year to crack down on “ugly identikit” houses “plonked down without regard to the shape and character of existing communities”.

The letter from Berkeley’s lawyers, seen by The Times, outlines six reasons that it thinks the decision was wrong. It claims that the refusal was partly based on “erroneous and out-of-date conclusions”, particularly with regards to the shortfall of housing in the local area, which Gove had said was “slight”.

Berkeley also questioned how Gove could reject planning because of “bad design without any reasoning or indeed without referring to any evidence”.

The disagreement marks a further low for relations between Gove and the housebuilding industry. Developers have been left frustrated and upset by the housing secretary repeatedly coming after them to fix dangerous cladding at tower blocks around the country.

So far, major builders have pledged to fix any fire safety issues at sites where they were directly involved, while a new tax that must all pay is helping to cover the cost of so-called “orphan” buildings. A third levy is also being discussed.

While the housebuilders are now on the hook for billions of pounds, Gove is yet to get anything out of the cladding manufacturers.

Relations have been further soured by what the industry sees as a lack of engagement from the secretary of state. Most of them have only spoken with him briefly on a Zoom call at the start of 2022 when he was first trying to get them to pay up over the cladding crisis.

His comments last spring that the big developers act like a “cartel” also did not go down well with the industry, nor did his request that the Competition and Markets Authority look into the sector.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities declined to comment beyond the content of its letter on April 6.

Investment Synergy - choose 1 - choose any 1 ...... but only if it appeals to an individual that apparently wields power with a lack of foresight. Lack of housing and rising rents are becoming a serious issue and not just in the UK .

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