Cameron's half-baked planning reforms

The housing reforms got good press - but it's not all positive



Amidst a miserable week of news headlines for David Cameron this week, one major political success story for the party has been rather less commented upon. Wednesday’s papers confirmed a widespread thumbs-up for the Coalition’s reform of the planning system, an issue that has been hugely controversial, particularly among the Tories’ core supporters.

The draft of the reforms, which when released last summer promised to force planners to adopt a default “yes” to planning applications, prompted a joint campaign by the UK’s biggest-selling daily broadsheet – the Telegraph – and one of its largest membership organisations, the National Trust.

The positive publicity was even more surprising since the reforms, contained in the Soviet-sounding National Planning Policy Framework, pushed ahead with introducing a presumption in favour of “sustainable” development into the planning system for the first time in a generation. House builders said it was sound basis for a more pro-growth planning system.

And yet the Daily Telegraph was still able to crow about how it had saved the English countryside.

Turning round this widespread outrage in the shires, is a vindication for Greg Clark, the highly intelligent and well thought of “minister for decentralisation” who has been the driving force behind the government’s localism agenda. The genial Clark had been destined for a cabinet post in 2010, until the Coalition agreement meant key posts were taken up with Liberal Democrats, and has been the intellectual driving force behind the planning changes.

All in all it was ultimately a masterclass in deployment of the tactical and appropriately telegraphed U-turn: as with the tinkering with the Coalition’s NHS reforms, the idea was to defuse opposition by appearing to concede ground, while still pushing ahead with the core intentions.

Only this time with a lot more success.

However, the key issue for the developers, housebuilders, councils and homeowners the reforms affect, is not the presentation, but whether they will actually improve a planning system in crisis. Government cuts have reduced most councils’ planning departments to the bone, contributing to the delivery in 2010 of the second lowest number of homes built in peacetime since the 1920s.

So will the reforms work?

In many ways the document is a vast improvement on the draft version issued last summer to howls of protest from Simon Jenkins and the National Trust. It removes the more egregious attempts at tilting the system in favour of housebuilders by removing key phrases, and includes a more stringent definition of sustainable development that puts it in line with government policy elsewhere.

Other additional references, to brownfield land use, and more safeguards over the quality of design, are also welcome.

However, it’s by no means all good news. Lawyers have been particularly effusive in their praise for the reforms, knowing that in the ambiguities the slimmed down document creates a solicitors paradise of legal disputes.

And for developers it’s not just yesterday’s document but the whole raft of planning reforms undertaken by the Coalition which should be looked at. For the first thing that Communities secretary Eric Pickles did when getting in to office was abolish (illegally, as it turned out) New Labour’s regional planning system. Vitally, this system had contained a set of housing targets designed to help this country meet the huge demand for new homes for the first time in a generation.

Since that decision – now cemented by last year’s Localism Act – councils up and down the country have rowed back on their plans for new homes, cutting over 200,000 homes out of local plans. So far, there is very little evidence that the introduction of this week’s reforms will change that fundamental direction of travel.

Coalition ministers will tell you that the failure to build more homes now is down to the economy, and that councils weren’t likely to meet their targets in a recession anyway. This may be true, but the reduction in councils’ aspirations for new housing will become a serious matter as soon as the economy turns.

With data out just today from Homeless Link being the latest to show the rise in demand for services for the homeless, the lack of new housing is an acute issue.

Nevertheless the fact on the ground is that councillors don’t get rewarded by local voters for building new homes. And there is precious little in Greg Clark’s new planning framework that is likely to over-ride this fundamental political block on new development, meaning those in housing need will continue to suffer.


Holes in housing reform, Getty images

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine

Photo: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.