The anti-planning minister?

The Planning Minister, Nick Boles, is a clever, engaging man. It is good to see a politician interested in ideas. But it helps if the ideas are good ones and have some connection to reality.

As it is, Boles is struggling to make the transition from freewheeling intellectual full of radical new thinking that sounds great in a London think-tank seminar, to someone who can actually improve things in the real world. He is beginning to remind me of Sir Keith Joseph, the ‘mad monk’, an influential thinker but a poor Minister.[1]

Today’s Daily Telegraph reports that in a Newsnight interview this evening Nick Boles will say that he wants to increase by around a third the amount of countryside in England that is built on.

He is quoted as saying: “We’re going to protect the Green Belt – but if people want to have housing for their kids they have got to accept we need to build more on some open land. In the UK and England at the moment we’ve got about nine per cent of land developed. All we need to do is build on another two to three per cent of land and we’ll have solved a housing problem.”

The country needs many more houses, particularly affordable homes, and some of them will have to be built on open land. CPRE does not dispute this. We also welcome the Minister’s support for better quality housing and (though he didn’t quite say this) better planned development. He is right that simply bolting a ‘pig ugly’ new housing estate onto an existing town is unacceptable and likely to stoke opposition to development.

But there is a fundamental lack of seriousness in the Minister’s argument. He is willing the end – lots of good quality new housing and an end to the country’s housing crisis – without any serious thought about how this is to be achieved. And it is bordering on the dishonest to suggest that he can achieve this housing revolution – abandoning the priority given to developing within existing settlements before building in open countryside that has underlain planning policy since John Major’s government – without building on the Green Belt.

As it is, some 80,000 new homes are being built within the Green Belt, so Government protestations that it is safe ring rather hollow. I have sent Nick Boles’s boss, Eric Pickles, a report setting out the Green Belt developments up and down the country identified by CPRE’s branches. We have been told by the Secretary of State’s private office that he does not intend to respond. The Government is in denial about the erosion of the Green Belt that is already happening.

Here are three things wrong with Nick Boles’s analysis.

First, all serious analysts agree that it is not shortage of land that is preventing us from building enough new houses, but the state of the economy. Developers have planning permission for about 400,000 homes that they are not building, and there is enough suitable brownfield land to build 1.5 million new homes, including 400,000 homes in London. They are not being built because people can’t get mortgages and the government has slashed investment in new social housing.

Releasing countryside for new development will not result in more homes. The industry will build the number of homes the market can support. It will just build them in open countryside, as it did in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Second, Nick Boles attacks the quality of new housing but gives no clue what should be done to improve it. The Government has abandoned commitments to energy efficiency and is proposing to weaken the building regulations. At local level, planning departments are short-staffed and demoralised.

Councils are under pressure to make planning decisions quickly rather than well. The Growth and Infrastructure Bill now going through Parliament proposes to take planning powers away from ‘underperforming’ local authorities which take too long over decisions or lose too many appeals. Councils which nod through poor quality developments will not be punished.

Local authorities who try to ensure high quality development with a suitable mix of affordable housing are told they can’t: they must stick with the housing numbers in the Regional Spatial Strategies (still not abolished) and build the housing that the industry deems to be ‘viable’.

So every Government utterance screams ‘never mind the quality, just throw up houses’. This is John Prescott on steroids, surely a frightening thought for Tory Ministers. They should dust off some of the speeches on localism and quality housing that they made in opposition. (I exempt Nick Boles from that suggestion: his tune for years has been ‘weaken planning and the market will provide’.)

Third, if building in open countryside is now the order of the day, where will the houses be built? In the absence of any sort of policy to even out growth in England, it is likely to be in the South East. Even if the Green Belt really is protected, we can put paid to the character of much of our most beautiful countryside – and to the prospect of regenerating the many towns and cities across England that badly need new life and new development.

And as for Nick Boles’s insouciant line that he is only talking about two or three per cent of the land area of England, it is already the case that well over half of southern England is intruded upon by urban development – light pollution, the sight of houses and or warehouses, the sound of traffic. An area does not have to be built on to have its tranquillity and rural nature destroyed.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was finalised after a long battle only a few months ago. Local authorities and civic organisations such as CPRE are working to make it a success. But instead of trying to make the NPPF work, Nick Boles seems committed to permanent revolution. This will result in a lot of debate and a lot of discord. It is very unlikely to result in more development, let alone the sort of high quality development that the country needs and Nick Boles says he wants.

[1] It is irrelevant to this piece, of course, but any mention of Keith Joseph is an excuse to recall Michael Foot’s wonderful speech in which he likened Joseph to a conjuror-magician who forgot the trick.

15 Responses to “The anti-planning minister?”

  1. 1 Harry Edmonds November 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Excellent article. I’m glad that Nick Boles has at least implied the need for ‘quality housing’ – something I believe Prince Charles suggested many years ago. Perhaps if developers actually sat down at a table and met with members of the local community about the architecture of new houses, which would try to match the surrounding houses – then this sheer loathing of developers would not exist.

    Look at the damage that companies like Baratt Homes will continue to do if this approach is not taken.

  2. 2 Wyrdtimes (@Wyrdtimes) November 28, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    They will never build enough houses while the UK government maintains its insane open door immigration policy into (almost exclusively) England. Why doesn’t the CPRE use its influence to call for a sane population policy (for England) and an end to mass immigration? It’s the blatant cause of the housing crisis and therefore the pressure to build on England’s green and pleasant land.

  3. 5 Arthur Franks November 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Excellent article I heard about this on the radio this morning. Every MP should read it.

  4. 6 colin wiles (@colinwiles) November 29, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Disingenuous as ever, Shaun. You know full well that we need to be building at least 250,000 homes each year since households in England are set to grow by 232,000 every year over the next twenty years – and most of that is down to the fact that we are living longer and in smaller households, and is NOT the result of immigration. That means 5 million new homes are needed and only 1.5 million can be built on brownfield, as you accept. So 3.5 million homes will HAVE to be built beyond existing urban areas, sooner rather than later. When is the CPRE going to accept that a significant slice of unprotected countryside will be needed to meet our housing needs, or should you be re-named the Campaign to Pickle Rural England? The truth is that your membership is overwhelmingly elderly, white and middle class and has little understanding of the dire housing needs faced by a growing cohort of our population.

    • 7 Shaun Spiers November 30, 2012 at 10:09 am

      Colin, I said in my piece that we need to build many more houses, and that some of them will have to go on open land. But I also argued that it is not planning or a shortage of land that is stopping housing being built, but the state of the economy and the lack of public investment in housing.

      I don’t share your gift of prophesy, but the problem with releasing enough greenfield land now to accommodate the households that might be formed over the next twenty years is that the easiest, most profitable greenfield land will get developed first. We will both lose precious countryside and miss the chance to regenerate towns and cities that need regeneration. And we still won’t build enough houses: there is no evidence that simply releasing land results in houses being built.

      It is true that many CPRE’s members look a lot like you, but I do not accept that CPRE is standing in the way of addressing ‘the dire housing needs faced by a growing cohort of our population’. I certainly recognise that need. One obvious way of addressing it is large-scale investment in social housing. But that has been a difficult case to make for the last thirty years, and it is even more difficult given the current economic climate.

      I guess it is easier just to blame countryside campaigners for the housing crisis than to address the flaws in our housing market and our failure as a nation to invest in decent housing for those who can’t afford to buy.

    • 8 Paul Simon November 30, 2012 at 10:17 am

      Colin, the housing equation is not as simple as you are making out. You are basing your figures on projections of household growth – but the projections are based on past trends of household formation continuing into the future. Households are more likely to form when the economic conditions allow them to do so. Relying on projections is highly questionable when it appears to be clear that, for the next few years at least, we are not going to have the same levels of availability of finance, either for developers or for prospective house buyers, that we had a few years ago.

      Nor does CPRE oppose all development on greenfield sites as you suggest. Local CPRE groups have in fact supported the development of affordable housing on a number of rural ‘exception’ sites across the country, and in other locations such as Gloucestershire have accepted the need for greenfield allocations in plans where insufficient brownfield land is available.

      Brownfield sites should be used before greenfield as a general rule. The supply of brownfield land is dynamic and should not be seen as fixed. A 2011 report for CPRE by Green Balance, Building on a Small Island, showed that, according to Government data, for every five suitable housing plots becoming available in England between 2001 and 2009, only three homes where built, and that there was more brownfield land available and suitable for housing in 2009 than 2001.

    • 9 Albert Ravey February 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm

      This is the viewpoint of the advocates of further housing and it is interesting, if flawed. The flaw is that it poses more questions than it answers and the big question is: if we need 250,000 new houses a year for the next twenty years, what about the twenty years after that? In other words, when does it stop? When we reach the ocean? The sooner we address that problem, the better for all of us and the more questions that organisations put to the blind advocates of infinite population growth, the better.

  5. 10 Richard P Beauchamp, Vice Chair, CPREssex November 29, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    So right about the population, which everybody except CPRE “it seems” know drives the pressure on our constituency. One thousand more people per day dwell on this Island.
    As noted at the Autumn Conference p, even the Sanctuary that was the Green Belt is already under direct threat further to all the countryside already lost on a daily basis.
    Thankfully many in the membership do know this and some of those are brave enough to confront the taboo and are talking about it. It remains a touchy subject and organisations including CPRE who have such a clear interest in addressing the issue and petitioning about it do not!
    But each of us has as well, the personal motive to ensure a place where our descendants wil have secure access to food, water, space and energy sources. There are a miriade of reasons why the population should be held and lowered. To address the protection of current Rural England ONLY requires holding the population at current level as soonist possible.

    Why have we not got 60million+ members? …why do we struggle to hold onto our members? and why do we fail to attract new ones of all ages?

    Perhaps because our cause is considered as lost by so many who know we are too many and counting!

    The good news is that no co-ercion on anyone’s personal choices is required to bring this about. The evidence is well researched and freely available. Thankfully it seems the Government is working faster than we are on this but we cannot be complacent.

  6. 11 Peter Cleasby December 5, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Well said, Shaun. One of the things that worries me about this “most transparent government ever” is Ministers’ refusal to engage with facts. Hence Boles, on Newsnight and elsewhere, responds to inconvenient facts by saying “I don’t agree” full stop. Pickles’ refusal to respond to the green belt dossier is another, arguably even worse, manifestation of this characteristic. This weakness – whether from arrogance, stupidity or fear – should have no place in a supposedly mature democracy.

    • 12 sspiers December 5, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      Peter, thanks for that. I should note that Eric Pickles has now agreed to a meeting to discuss CPRE’s concerns about what is happening in the Green Belt.

  7. 13 David Wicks May 9, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    I have a strong suspicion that the reason that Nick Boles and Eric Pickles think that speeding up planning decisions will be good for the economy and answer all our housing problems is mainly an issue of profit-making. If the large building companies can be persuaded to build enormous dense housing developments in green-field locations they will make massive profits. This will lead to the recovery of the economy, solve unemployment problems and improve everyone’s investment portfolio.
    They are probably correct about that but what are the dis-advantages of this amazingly simplistic solution? Are we going to have to suffer living with poor planning and building decisions which cannot be restored when they prove disastrous? I remember seeing whole districts of our bigger cities demolished because the planning had been insensitive and inadequate. Are we about to experience this sort of disaster all over the countryside? It certainly looks like it.

    • 14 Cynical, moi? August 8, 2014 at 8:45 pm

      And out of these massive profits will surely come a substantial donation to the Tories election fund. It’s win – win, for the building lobby and the Tories.

  8. 15 David Wicks August 9, 2014 at 7:00 am

    I have seen the start of a local backlash recently. It is not ‘political’ , it consists of local people saying that they don’t want developments forced upon them. They have problem with farmers selling off productive farm land for building and solar farms and they didn’t live in the countryside to look out onto warehouses. It has taken some time but the voice of the silent majority is starting to be heard. Why can’t the media get off it’s backside and report it?

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