Planning reform need not be a battle between the north and south
3 min read
Given how defensive many people feel about their green fields, the idea that they are under threat from remote officials applying a mutant algorithm is truly toxic.
One of the great advantages of the constituency system is that it forces MPs out of the fabled Westminster bubble. In doing so it means that any sensible MP will notice that there are some issues which look dull to political journalists, commentators, and social media keyboard warriors, while they create huge passion and anger among people in the real world.
Planning is the prime example of this. It has consistently been the issue most likely to cause widespread discontent in my constituency, even though over the years I have had a controversial local hospital trust, traffic chaos caused by using the motorway as a lorry park, and a new railway line built through the area. Housing numbers, their location and quality, and the need for the attendant infrastructure, are always at or near the top of the list.
Despite this it takes a by-election shock to engage the commentators to the political perils of getting planning policy wrong. The government’s recent white paper contains many good ideas about the quality of building, but it also contained a dangerous tendency to remove power from local to central government. Given how defensive many people feel about their green fields, the idea that they are under threat not even from local politicians who can be lobbied (and removed) but from remote officials applying a mutant algorithm is truly toxic.
When the legislation eventually arrives it has to allow a significant degree of local control over the process at every stage. As a Conservative, I find it odd that I have to make this pitch to a Conservative government. In my early years in Parliament I complained that John Prescott’s proposals would turn the Garden of England into a patio. It is sad that I have had to revive that phrase as a warning to Ministers today.
A practical and pragmatic approach could satisfy the needs of Red and Blue Wall areas alike
What is particularly frustrating is that I absolutely share the premise that we should be building more homes. The government is, under the current system, getting closer to its target of 300,000 new homes every year, so it is not obvious that we need a whole new rule book. But even if we do, the government is in danger of missing some relatively easy ways to raise the annual numbers.
The CPRE has estimated that around a million potential homes have planning permission and have not yet been built. I know that Ministers dispute the details of this figure, but whatever method of calculation you choose the number is very large. We could hit a target of 300,000 a year for the rest of this Parliament without granting single extra planning permission.
The underlying point is that while the Department over the decades has always believed that the obstruction to housing growth has been local authorities, some of the problem lies with the developers. I don’t blame them for not building all their homes at once, as they are simply responding to market forces, but the system therefore needs to find a way attach a time limit to permissions, or a penalty for not using them over a specified period.
There are other good ideas floating around, such as a greenfield tax to fund remediation of brownfield sites. This would in particular encourage development in the North, with its attendant economic activity that is needed there.
This need not be a battle between the North and the South. A practical and pragmatic approach could satisfy the needs of Red and Blue Wall areas alike. And planning could again disappear from the front pages.
Damian Green is the Conservative MP for Ashford.
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