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The coalition’s confusion over planning

The government clearly can’t decide between localism and economic growth.

One of the many timeless phrases that the current Baron Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull gave to the nation – and to his opponents in the Tory press – was his 1999 musing on preventing inappropriate housing development. "The greenbelt is a Labour achievement," he said. "And we intend to build on it."

Scoffing aside, actually Prescott had a point.

He wanted to build homes and, as much as was practical, he wanted the building to be in existing urban areas. His idea was simple: to direct the development that the country needed to derelict land that has already been used.

In 2000 Prescott ruled that 60 per cent of all new homes had to be built on previously used land. He added a raft of guidance making it harder for councils to approve greenfield planning applications if there were empty so-called "brownfield" sites available.

The target was exceeded: 80 per cent of new homes were built on brownfield, saving thousands of acres of green fields from the bulldozer.

In deprived areas the rules ensured that developers concentrated on regeneration, not on suburban luxury homes, which contributed to the hollowing out of town centres. Of course, it was far from perfect, but the principle was helpful.

"Enemies of enterprise"

In Wednesday's Budget, George Osborne abolished this target. Councils are now to be free to decide whether regeneration is important to them.

But this doesn't just put Prescott's legacy at risk by sending a signal to developers that the government doesn't mind if they build unsustainable, out-of-town developments. It also goes to heart of the coalition's confusion over planning.

The reality is that the number of planning applications has fallen every single quarter since "localist" planning reforms were instituted by the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, in May last year. Applications are 22 per cent down from a year ago.

In addition, council plans for 217,000 homes have been scrapped. Meanwhile, the Treasury witnessed a 0.6 per cent fall in construction GDP at the end of last year when things were supposed to be improving. Growth is being jeopardised.

David Cameron identified planners as "enemies of enterprise" but others have pointed the finger at Pickles. For Osborne, something had to be done.

Fundamentally the government is struggling to decide between localism and economic growth – between giving power to the blue-blooded nimby Tories of the shires, or to the red-blooded capitalist Tories of the city. The latter say deregulate to allow out-of-town superstores, edge-of-town housing estates and new motorways; the former say no to all of these.

So Osborne will have been pleased to read the plaudits from the CBI, hailing his achievement in tackling the "chronic obstacle" of the planning system.

But those businesses hailing it should read the fine print. His announcement on brownfield (just one small but important part of the package) was actually localism dressed up as deregulation. In fact, the move, giving powers to every council to set its own targets, could be exactly what developers don't want, replacing one rule with 400.

It means leafy shire districts opposed to development will be able to set higher targets to block development from going ahead. This development is essential if the next generation is to be able to buy homes in these leafy surburbs.

Give us a grin, Prezza

Meanwhile, the other planning measures in the Budget are either so unclear as to be uninterpretable, or are reannouncements of existing policies. No wonder the Office for Budget Responsibility had to admit it was unable to identify anything in the package which caused it to improve its growth forecasts.

Ultimately, the Budget simply underscores this contradiction between localism and growth – there is no attempt to solve it. The localist reforms to the planning system, viewed largely with hostility by those expected to build new homes, go on.

No doubt Prescott will have a wry smile.

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor of Building magazine.