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.