Planning is both more important to British politics and more interesting than it sounds. On the left, the capacity of the state to plan economic activity has been a recurrently dashed hope in Labour history. On the right, planning runs along the great fault line in Conservative thought, a gap that Boris Johnson bestrides with unconcerned aplomb. There are problems philosophical and political hidden in the Planning Bill that featured in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May.
My mind goes back to a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting that I chaired in Manchester in 2009. What I wrongly took to be an unpromising subject – that of mobile phone masts – attracted an overflowing house. The assembled delegates had come to defend their own patch of green back home. They regarded building not as development but as destruction. They had a Ruskinian view of the natural world. They were the kind of Conservatives to whom Kenneth Baker was appealing when he included a whole section on “landscape” in his anthology of modern Conservative thought.
I asked everyone in the audience to hold up their mobile phone. I then asked who, among those who held a phone in the air, was in favour of phone masts. Like a Mexican wave, the hands that had gone up then went down as one. It was a lovely dramatisation of a party that sponsored economic progress but also objected to it. This is the Conservative Party through the ages. Sometimes liberal, sometimes conservative, sometimes both at once. I pointed out that we were a matter of a hundred yards away from the site of the old Free Trade Hall that Richard Cobden had commissioned in 1853 to celebrate the victory of the market liberals over the apologists for the producers, an episode which had torn the Conservative Party in two.
The laudable objective of the proposed Planning Bill is to ensure that more houses can be built. The number of households has tripled over the past century. A quicker birth rate, a slower death rate, later marriages and more of them ending in divorce have all increased the demand for housing. In 1911 only 5 per cent of households contained a single person. Now around a quarter of households are one-person. Last year more than 200,000 homes were built and that was the best year for construction since 1987. Yet the government’s own target is 300,000 and the National Housing Federation and the charity Crisis say that 340,000 per annum is the minimum requirement for England. Whichever number you take to be gospel, there is a problem here.
It should be noted, too, that the defenders of the pristine countryside I encountered in Manchester were wrong about their own nation. For a country with an intensely urban population, this is still a rural protectorate. Around a tenth of the landmass of Britain is urban and little more than 2 per cent is built on. Sheep and cows have more land to live on than humans and they are hardly paying their way either. Agriculture accounts for more than 70 per cent of the English landmass and contributes around 0.5 per cent to GDP. There is about to be a big row in government about whether farmers should be subsidised as part of the free trade deal that has been struck with Australia. This is a remake of the Corn Laws with Liz Truss playing Robert Peel.
The Planning Bill before parliament also tends to the liberal side. It instructs councils to parcel their land into one of three categories: growth, protection or renewal. In areas designated for growth the existing planning laws will be, in effect, abolished; a presumption of development will be established in the hope that the five years it takes for a typical housing plan to be passed as fit for development will dissolve into immediacy. There will be no more of what the Prime Minister disparagingly called the “newt-counting delays”, a process that plenty in his party regard as necessary local consultation and crucial for the conservation of the landscape’s beauty. It was not long ago that the late Roger Scruton was studying beauty on behalf of the government. It is not likely that the housebuilders will share his aesthetic sensibility; they are on the other side of the great Tory fault line.
The tension between a liberal desire for speech and a conservative hope to control the outcome is visible, too, in the section – or rather the absence of a section – in the Planning Bill on an infrastructure levy. In the existing legislation, the provisions of Section 106 are designed to ensure that development includes some housing at lower than market cost. But, if a replacement for Section 106 is due, the details are not yet obvious.
The National Housing Federation is adamant that not just any old 340,000 houses a year will do. It says 120,000 of them need to be for rent, some of them at subsidised rates, and a further 25,000 need to be for shared ownership. A liberal planning regime will not magically alight on these numbers because the housing market does not work like the efficient markets for haircuts or baked beans. Increased supply doesn’t have the same effect on price that it has elsewhere, especially in an era of such low interest rates.
The government is going to have to define what it wants and make it so. It is going to have to take a view that many of its MPs don’t like. It wants a liberal planning process but will have to intervene when its preferred outcome does not materialise. The Johnson government has, for the moment, decided that building trumps conservation. But, in planning and the housing market, the contradictions follow you around. There will be trouble down the country roads.
[see also: How Tory dominance is built on home ownership]
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy