“We Can Take Some Of The Edges Off That Are Upsetting People”

A personal rant, with apologies. Did you see that quote in the Daily Mail about the long awaited Planning Bill?

“A Government source said ministers would be in ‘listening mode’ on the issue when Parliament returns in September, adding: ‘We’ll listen and we’ll move.

We can take some of the edges off that are upsetting people and still get some important changes through.

‘The bottom line is we have got to get more houses built. The average age of a first-time buyer is 34. We have to get that down and give younger people a chance to get a stake in society.’”

Listening to whom, do we think? Backbench Conservative MPs of course and voters in relevant constituencies of course. Anyone else? Shrugging shoulders emoji.

Does the Government really believe that it can make changes that materially accelerate the delivery of homes, without upsetting voters and therefore backbench Conservative MPs? (I’m only focusing on the Conservative party because it is in Government – Labour MPs are hardly falling over themselves either to support development in their constituencies, and as for the Liberal Democrats…). I see it all around me, the social norm/knee jerk reaction to a development proposal being to object and being to assume that everyone else will want to object too – whether green field development (it should be on a brown field site) or the development of a brown field site (oh not there, too high, setting, infrastructure etc etc). Of course it is hoped that exhortations as to design will make a difference in making development less unpopular, but, even travelling optimistically, that is going to take a long long time.

So what are the “edges” that are going to be taken off the white paper proposals?

It’s obvious isn’t it? No doubt the idea that national housing targets will actually, perish the thought, have to be planned for by each local authority on a local basis, let alone find their way through to consents and development, isn’t just out of the window, it’s jumped down onto the pavement and skipped half way down the street by now.

One leading rebel said: ‘If this ends up being a developers’ free-for-all, it will be utterly toxic for Tory MPs everywhere – not just in the South East.

‘If ministers get this wrong we can kiss goodbye to our new electoral success.

‘We will be doing the Lib Dems’ job for them across the Midlands, the South and the suburbs where we’ve had massive growth in recent years.

‘People are fed up. Being seen as the party concreting over our countryside or ramming housing estates into suburban green spaces will be electoral suicide. Boris needs to get a grip on this.’ Rebels want the idea of mandatory house-building targets replaced with voluntary ones.

They also want ministers to drop ‘growth zones’ in which planning applications would be automatically approved.”

Can we be clear: no-one I know in the development and planning world wants a fudged, bodged, old failed ideas re-branded, camel of a Planning Bill. Forget the whole thing rather than waste valuable time on a set of reforms based on political trade-offs and trying to be all things to all people. If as a politician you can’t focus on the objectives – climate change, providing everyone with a decent home, a functioning economy – because you’re just worrying about holding onto power and a job, forget it, don’t even start: with that frame of mind you will make things worse not better.

Without (1) a clear articulation of how many homes need to be built across the country, with a published evidence base to support that number (whether that’s 300,000 a year, or lower, or – probably – higher) and (2) those numbers somehow being divided out across the country without local opportunities for prolonged delays, obfuscation and special pleading (a year on from the white paper it is still really difficult to work out how this can be done), the system will continue to meander on its way – through the interminable plan making local politics, through the lengthy, unpredictable, too detailed and yet too light touch, examinations and through the inevitable court challenges.

The incoming coalition government in 2010 tore up top-down planning, in the form of the regional strategies, before the system even had time to prove itself. Yes it was an slow and over-engineered process, but there was at least the opportunity for democracy at the regional level in setting and apportioning numbers. The return to a bottom up approach, together with the let’s cross our fingers and rely on the duty (not really) to co-operate, and with a semi voluntary, almost unmappable, ad hoc patchwork of local authority combinations and alliances, has led to local plans being mired in endless debates as to numbers. Even with a supposedly standard method for calculating local housing need, those endless debates continue in every green belt local authority area – see Cherwell Development Watch Alliance v Cherwell District Council & Secretary of State (Thornton J, 30 July 2021) for the most recent example.

How are we going to get out of that mire, plan quickly and positively, stabilise spiralling house prices, reduce the age at which adult working offspring can leave the parental home to live somewhere convenient (let alone buy their own home – that’s a first world problem compared to the need for an affordable home in the first place), if local housing numbers are going to be left for local authorities and communities to determine?

Pray tell, “Government source”.

Simin Ricketts, 6 August 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Two great clubhouse Planning Law Unplanned events coming up:

⁃ 6pm Tuesday 10 August: Stonehenge road tunnel consent quashed: why, how, what next – discussion led by junior counsel to Save Stonehenge, Victoria Hutton. Link to invitation here.

⁃ 6pm Tuesday 17 August: AN END TO UGLY: The Office for Place & NMDC unpacked – special guests Nicholas Boys-Smith (chair, Office for Place), Dr Chris Miele (Montagu Evans) and Vicky Payne (URBED). Link to invitation here.

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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