David Cameron has been struggling to get across what he means by his Big Society project, but he has nonetheless succeeded spectacularly in motivating previously apathetic and distant neighbours to get together and give up their time for a common purpose. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, that purpose is to stop his planning policy.
True, the National Trust — which launched a campaign against the government’s planning reforms last week — often comes across as a lavender-scented enemy of progress. But there is little question that its views reflect those of millions of people who ought to be this government’s natural supporters. However great the need for more housing and new business premises, it is political suicide for ministers to declare war on what they regard as nimbyism.
The problem can be summed up with a single phrase from the proposals: ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. Forget the ‘sustainable’ bit — a piece of New Labour-speak so vague as to mean nothing — to most people it means only one thing: that developers will find it easier in future to drive through unpopular projects. Any doubts about this will be quickly dispelled by a follow-up phrase: ‘The government’s clear expectation is that we move to a system where the default answer to development is “yes”.’
The planning minister, Greg Clark, claims that the reforms are about localism, and indeed, he can point to new powers giving areas the right to instigate their own ‘neighbourhood plans’, and a new requirement on large developers to consult with local people before submitting big applications. But the reforms raise the spectre of the volume housebuilders and the supermarket chains wearing down opposition through attrition. Developers with deep pockets can only be expected to exploit the policy by putting in dozens of planning applications, knowing that protesters will have to exhaust themselves proving why each and every one would be inappropriate.
John Prescott does not often attract compliments in these pages, but he had a wiser head for the politics of planning than Mr Clark appears to. His policy was to nominate four zones in south-east England for major expansion: Ashford, the Thames Estuary, Milton Keynes and Corby, each one chosen because it was a place of relatively low political resistance. Of course, he was accused of ‘bulldozing the countryside’, as is any government announcing a house-building programme. But no one was going to go to war to defend the environs of Thurrock in the way that they will do to save, say, the Chilterns or the South Downs. Clark is deeply ambitious, a young minister in a hurry. But he has something to learn from Prescott, who at least chose his battles wisely. The ‘presumption in favour of development’ gives the impression that everywhere will face the prospect of development, all the time. Paradoxically, a policy derived from the new principle of ‘localism’ is making local residents feel less able to resist development.
That is not to say that the planning system does not need reform. It can often seem like a vestige of socialism, and it has certainly become too restrictive. By all means, ministers must recognise the challenges caused by massive population growth — if they cannot control immigration, they will have to deal with its consequences. But the answer is not blindly to follow the lead of Spain and Ireland and concrete the countryside. Those countries realised only too late that the factors driving real estate were not prosperity or demographics, but a debt bubble which burst. In Britain, too, a speculative housing boom created the dramatic impression of a property shortage far worse than it actually was. Housebuilding has since fallen to half the rate it was in 2007, not because of planning controls but because of a shortage of buyers.
Yes, Britain urgently needs economic growth. But the needs of the economy are not always the same as the needs of particular corporations, even ones with ambitious building plans. George Osborne would do better to encourage growth by cutting taxes. He should not fall prey to the delusion that a construction boom would shorten dole queues. The building of the Olympic Stadium showed that massive projects simply suck in overseas labour, leaving local unemployment unaffected. If some parts of Britain fail to grow, the reason is not — usually — that there are too few houses. It is that there are too few jobs.
Walk around Manchester or Birmingham and you will find too many areas where deserted buildings stand like commercial gravestones. But an intelligent approach to planning could help. There is a good case for enterprise zones where ordinary planning controls are lifted, as well as a general need to release more land for housing and business. But ever since the current planning system was instigated in 1947, the principle of restricting development to areas which have been zoned for particular purposes has proved extremely popular. It is not unreasonable to assert that, without restrictions, south-east England would long since have become a California-style sprawl.
Ministers should work with the planning system, not attempt to dismantle it. A general ‘presumption in favour of development’ is a policy millstone that has already cost the government a huge amount of support.