It’s a bit rich for the prime minister and chancellor to blame the planning system for the lack of new homes when they were the ones who scrapped all the housing targets
When the economy is tanking, with the government resolutely sticking to a vaunted austerity programme that offers no sign of any growth – still less recovery – ministers direct their fire at an old foe.
Blame the planning system. If only if were more responsive to business, less cumbersome and restrictive, more market-orientated, think how much stronger the economy would be, they whine.
Nothing to do with suppressed demand caused by rising unemployment and wage cuts, rationed mortgages, falling sales in the high street, banks that won’t lend and industry that won’t spend from substantial cash piles.
Now the planning system is far from perfect, its dwindling band of professionals – yes, planning departments have taken a big hit from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ merciless onslaught on town halls – seemingly more concerned with development control than place-shaping.
But let’s get real. Britain is, at best, stagnating because this government hasn’t aligned its deficit-reduction programme with carefully-targeted growth in – say – housing and construction, sustainable energy, and our old friend ‘infrastructure’. And banging on about ‘austerity’ simply sent out a negative message to households that they, too, must economise and cut spending. Which, of course, they did!
Two thirds of the way through the last government, I wrote a feature for Public Finance on Gordon Brown’s plans to reform the planning system, labeling it the ‘enemy of growth’. The former Chancellor, and then PM, was determined to fast-track big infrastructure projects without the need for time-consuming public inquiries. A new planning act brought in an Infrastructure Planning Commission to oversee the task.
On taking power, the Conservative-led coalition scrapped it – along with a regional planning system, housing targets, and all. As a result tens of thousands of homes were removed from the planning system, largely by Nimbyist Tory councils. Elsewhere, construction ground to a halt
Housebuilding has now plummeted, with housing ‘starts’ on the last analysis down below 100,000 for the first time most can remember. Regeneration projects have floundered. Hundreds of thousands of building workers are jobless. Waiting lists for social housing are approaching a record two million.
As one City analyst reported last week in a timely report, housebuilding is a sure-fire way of reviving parts of the economy because it is a domestic industry, with a supply chain located mainly in the UK. A revival would not suck in significant imports.
Having blithely conspired with ideologues to scrap all housing targets, and an associated planning regime – significantly not, mark you, in Greater London – it’s slightly rich for the PM and hapless Chancellor to blame the planning system for the country’s ills.
After all, haven’t they just approved a new Localism Act, with a new neighbourhood planning system, alongside a new National Planning Policy Framework – refined by Pickles’ department after an outcry from an alliance, embracing the National Trust, and the Daily Telegraph, which feared an onslaught on the green belt and rural England. If this government gets its way, they ain’t seen nothing yet!