Next CEO Lord Wolfson says planning rules are stifling economy and society

Lord Wolfson

The chief executive of Next has called for an overhaul of Britain’s planning rules as he warned that the current system is “holding back industry and society”.

Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise, 56, said that trying to build stores of the right size in the places where people want to shop has been a “constant battle” over the past 30 years and “that is replicated across the whole industry”.

“If you ask any type of business, whether it be energy infrastructure, warehousing, distribution or call centres, and ask them to name their biggest concerns, planning is going to be top on their list of issues,” he said. “The time it takes to get permission, the cost of getting it and the inability to build what you really need to build is holding back industry and society.”

Building Next’s warehouses could be quicker than the three or four years it takes to get planning permission, Wolfson said.

The businessman added that the current system, designed in 1947, also “slows down, prevents and increases the cost of building new homes. So there is a profound social impact as well as an economic impact from the way our planning system works.”

Wolfson, who has been a Tory peer since 2010, said the “unlocking” of planning and giving less power to land owners would be the “key to driving growth and productivity in the UK”.

“Rather than the government having to initiate and decide where people live, work, eat, sleep and take their leisure, have a system which starts with a free market, but a free market with rigorous controls and regulations,” he said. “While you can’t prevent other properties being built if you own a property, you can prevent the building of things that would damage the value of your property. You’d end up with a system that allows the market to decide where and how things are built.”

The retail chief, who studied law at Cambridge University, added that “you can see just how much potential is locked up in the planning system by looking at the difference in the value of an acre of land without planning permission versus an acre of land with”.

He explained that an acre of agricultural land was often worth about £15,000 and an acre of land with planning permission for housing would be worth about £1.5 million.

Wolfson is one of the longest serving chief executives in the FTSE 100. The Next boss was a prominent supporter of the Conservative Party leader David Cameron and took a high-profile role in the 2010 election campaign by organising the business rebellion against Labour’s planned rise in national insurance.