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.

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.