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3 September 2011

Ministers act to head off another rural revolt

Greg Clark offers to sit down with critics of planning reform. But there will be no U-turn.

By George Eaton

In a bid to head off a repeat of the forests revolt, the government has offered to sit down with critics of its planning reforms. In an interview in today’s Times (£), the planning minister, Greg Clark callsed on the National Trust and other campaigners to “get specific” and “make positive suggestions”. On the Today programme this morning, Clark rightly pointed out that the Trust and other countryside groups had been very “abstract” in their criticisms so far. One misleading campaign presented an image of urban sprawl in Los Angeles as if this was the dystopian future facing the English countryside. The truth is that if the number of houses in the UK were doubled tomorrow, the amount of land built up would rise from 9 per cent to just 10.5 per cent.

It is for this reason, among others, that there is little prospect of a U-turn. Clark, who argued that the government’s critics have got “the wrong end of the stick”, is offering to clarify the reforms, not abandon them. He said: “If some of the groups think that some of these principles . . . could be expressed more clearly still then I’m certainly open to suggestions on that”. But he is clear that the priority is to build more homes and build them fast. The consequence of abandoning the reforms, he warned, “would be to continue the position we are in where we are not building enough homes for the people needing them for the first time. We are contributing to homelessness, to overcrowding, to poverty.” The average age of a first-time buyer without parental help is now 37. With house prices expected to rise by 21 per cent over the next five years, overwhelmingly due to a lack of supply, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

The fact that the economy has grown by just 0.2 per cent over the last nine months, means the reforms have become more, not less, urgent. Regardless of whether you favour Keynesian stimulus (as I do) or Hayekian austerity, the reality is that the UK, in common with most developed countries, faces a permanently reduced level of growth. Insofar as the government has a growth strategy, the planning reforms are a crucial component of it. As Clark argued, “We can’t be ambivalent about growth.” It is therefore reassuring that, according to the Times, David Cameron is “preparing to confront the countryside lobby head-on and is determined not to back down.”

Elsewhere, in a fine column in today’s Telegraph, Charles Moore makes a passionately sane case for building more houses in the countryside. Moore writes: “The landscape we love … developed out of the normal human need to make a living. I cannot believe that its interest is best served by making future livelihoods almost impossible.” He concludes: “More new houses were built in the year before the Queen was born than are being built in 2011, though our population is 25 per cent higher now than then. Do we actually want a peasants’ revolt?”

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As Moore makes clear, for the sake of the economy and society, this is one battle the government cannot afford to lose.