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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle