When planning reform meets politics

Originally a column for Inside Housing.

A couple of miles away from where I live in Cornwall a community land trust wants to build 29 affordable homes for people with a strong local connection.

These are the first new affordable homes of any kind in Newlyn for years but (you guessed it) there is a ‘backlash from angry locals’. It’s not the homes they object to (of course not, it never is) but the traffic they will generate.

On the one hand, house prices are way out of reach of local earnings and there is a desperate shortage even of homes for private rent thanks to holiday lets. It would be hard to think of an example of a development more deserving of local support rather than campaign groups organising against it.

It’s a compelling reason why the government’s plans to reform the planning system so that individual planning applications no longer come into the equation and land is simply designated for protection, growth and renewal should be taken very seriously.

On the other, this is one of the rural areas facing the ‘threat’ of 400,000 new homes in a report this week that illustrates the scale of the well-housed Tory rebellion in the shires.

But something else I was reading recently suggests a need for caution. My Style of Government is Nicholas Ridley’s critique of the record of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration between 1979 and 1990.

Ridley was one of the main ideologues of Thatcherism and as her environment secretary between 1986 and 1989 he was the architect of the Housing Act 1988 and therefore of much of the housing system as we know it today.

He is also credited with popularising the term NIMBY, although his credibility suffered when it was revealed that he had himself objected to a planning application near his country home in the Cotswolds.

But what’s significant I think is this arch Thatcherite’s admission of complete failure on planning and the political lessons that he drew from it.

His policy then was to maintain the Green Belt and restrict sprawl by creating a few new towns and villages where demand was highest. These would be private sector led, with the biggest on the site of worked-out gravel pits at Foxley Wood in Hampshire for which he granted permission after an appeal. He goes on:

‘There was the usual storm of protest – I was even burnt in effigy. My successor, fearful of a similar fate no doubt, overturned my decision. The policy of new settlements was dead. As a result of reversing my decision there were four thousand fewer homes. The desire to be popular had triumphed over both common sense and the interests of people seeking only a house to live in.’

He concluded that ‘it was a thankless task to run the planning system in the 1980s. One was blamed personally for every consent granted, although 98 per cent of them were given by local authorities’.

Robert Jenrick may well have drawn the same conclusions about individual planning consents, hence the move to the new system.

He has even taken the battle into the heart of nimby territory with an article in the Telegraph.

But he is under intense political pressure, with Labour calling his plans ‘a developer’s charter’ and backbench Conservatives including former prime minister Theresa May arguing it will lead to ‘the wrong homes in the wrong places’.

He counters that with the argument that: ‘The property-owning democracy is one of the foundations of this country—the belief that home ownership should be achievable for all who dream of it, and that young people, irrespective of where they are born, should be able to own the keys to their own home.’

That way of framing the argument is debatable politically but the rash of objections to affordable homes for local people near me suggests that nimbyism remains a force to be reckoned with.

My guess is that Jenrick will be forced to compromise with his backbenchers and that Tory constituencies in the South East will end up with a high proportion of their land with protected status.

Already the spin about levelling up suggests that the government is moving away from building more homes in the least affordable places on the basis that people will stay in the more affordable ones.

And there are more contradictions inherent in his policy that I’ll return to in my next column.

Nicholas Ridley concluded that the pressure was such that he could even lose his own seat if he tried to force through more homes and argued that ‘the solution was to reduce the demand and to cool the credit boom’.

While it’s unlikely he will suffer the same fate in his own constituency, it’s an argument that Jenrick might want to bear in mind too.

Ridley thought that house prices had risen to ‘absurd levels’ in 1991 but what would he have made of them being almost 100 per cent higher in real terms (on the Nationwide’s figures) 30 years later?


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