Council leaders have called for local authorities to be given more powers over housebuilding to help the economy recover from the coronavirus crisis.

Experts have warned that the global pandemic could cut the number of homes built in London alone this year by half.

Ministers are preparing to launch a major overhaul of the planning system in England, to speed up approvals for new developments in a bid to aid the economy.

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In what many have interpreted as a bad sign for the role of local councils in decisions, Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, has said he wants to “rethink planning from first principles”.

Under the changes, zonal planning systems could be introduced to simplify councils’ planning criteria.

The Local Government Association, which represents councils in England, says it is vital they retain their planning powers. These, they say, create resilient as well as prosperous communities.

And it is calling for councils to be given more powers to tackle what it says is a housing “backlog” across the country.

They should be able to act, for instance, if a site with planning permission is lying unused.

Research by the LGA earlier this year found that more than a million homes given planning permission in the past decade have not yet been built.

The association says the need to restart the economy means it is now imperative that councils are allowed to keep 100 per cent of receipts from Right to Buy sales.

It also wants the timeframe in which councils can spend the money to be extended from three years to at least five.

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Councillor David Renard, LGA planning spokesperson, said: “As the nation recovers from coronavirus, it is more vital than ever that councils are able to lead the recovery effort from a local level. This includes making sure that councils retain the planning powers needed to deliver resilient, prosperous places that meet the needs of their communities.

“The planning system is not a barrier to housebuilding. Nine in 10 planning applications are approved by councils.”

He added: “Councils are committed to building the homes that communities need, making sure they are appropriate for the local environment, decent and fit for purpose, affordable, and with the right infrastructure in place.

“Councils need powers to tackle our housing backlog and step in where a site with planning permission lies dormant and house building has stalled.”

Changes to the Right to Buy scheme would also allow councils to build “the new homes that people in their areas desperately need”, he added.

Councillor Diarmaid Ward, who is in charge of housing at Islington Council in London, said the crisis had exposed how many people across the country live in precarious conditions or unstable accommodation.

He called on ministers to cut the red tape around council home building, raise grant levels to 100 per cent of the cost of a new build home and abolish all restrictions on councils using their Right to Buy receipts.

“It’s time for the government to step up,” he said. “The last time the UK built 300,000 homes a year, in the 1970s, councils built over 40 per cent of them. There is no shortage of political will in local authorities to build council homes, but the government needs to stop stacking the system against us.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Building the homes the country needs is a priority for the government and we have restarted the housing market to help families and business return to normality in a safe way.

“The government continues to work closely with all parts of the housing industry about the challenges they face during the pandemic.

“We are committed to Right to Buy, which has helped nearly two million council tenants realise their dream of home ownership.”

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