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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.