The people have failed us! New Tory thinking on planning

Tory Modernisation 2.0: the future of the Conservative Party may be one of the best political books published last week. It is certainly interesting.

Perhaps predictably I found myself agreeing most with the essay on ‘Green Conservatism’ by Ben Caldecott, one of the founders of the Conservative Environment Network. This contests the idea that there is ‘a contradiction between sound economics and protecting natural resources and beauty’ and makes a plea for ‘caring about the place where we live, locally and globally’.

Conservatives should not ‘fixate on a narrow interpretation of what it means to be human, where economic self-interest trumps all… We know the importance of economics, and we also care about the place we live.’ The message is a good one, as relevant to the Shadow Chancellor as to the Tories at whom it is aimed. But it is a pity that it is lost on some of the other contributors to the book.

David Skelton, Acting Director of Policy Exchange, proposes loosening planning laws ‘so that houses are built where people actually want to live and businesses locate where they think is best for their business’. This, he says, ‘could help northern cities expand, regenerate and discover a new vibrancy’. On the other hand, I guess, it could result in much more development in the countryside, particularly in the wider south east, and less development in low demand areas such as, er, some northern cities.

In the book’s final essay, James O’Shaughnessy, David Cameron’s former director of policy, blames ‘our Soviet-style planning system’ for the country’s housing shortage. As Deputy Director of Policy Exchange O’Shaughnessy advocated financial incentives to encourage development and, he says, ‘the Coalition Government has faithfully implemented them’. But now he fears that the Government’s (Policy Exchange approved) ‘localism plus incentives’ reforms will not deliver enough new houses.

‘The political influence of NIMBYs, combined with the jealous hoarding of control by local authorities, is incredibly powerful.’ And irritatingly, ‘people are highly loss averse’. So ‘a big bang approach’ is needed, ‘one that allows individuals to solve their housing needs themselves by creating universal rules that circumvent local bureaucratic petty-fogging and self-interested opposition’.

Commissar O’Shaughnessy has three proposals for overriding local councillors and their stick-in-the-mud voters. First, every local authority should be compelled make enough land available to accommodate three per cent growth each year. ‘Non-compliance would mean losing the right to refuse any development in the area.’ Now that really is muscular localism! Second, every home owner should be allowed to add a storey to their home without planning permission. Third, ‘allow everyone who has never owned a home to buy any piece of unprotected land and build a home on it’.

It would be hard to take this seriously but for the fact that Policy Exchange’s views on planning have had such a strong influence on this Government, and in particular on the current Planning Minister.

Ben Caldecott concludes: ‘There is no better way to subvert economic progress or human happiness than to continue to kick away the natural support system that sustains us.’ That is well said.

And in the narrower area of planning and housing policy, there is no better way to ensure irresistible opposition to the new housing the country needs than to dismiss people’s concerns about the places they live and say they are just going to have to put up with it. That is a way to achieve maximum aggro and minimum building – precisely the Conservatives’ critique, in opposition, of the last Government’s target-driven housing policy.

3 Responses to “The people have failed us! New Tory thinking on planning”

  1. 1 Arthur Franks January 23, 2013 at 9:24 am

    I see many problems with these proposals. I live in a rural area that should be protected (ancient strips and drained land at or close to sea level but not at risk (yet) but a local architect complaining the environment agency will not let him build. The second point about extensions beggars belief when you see what is allowed (Gunthorpe Notts) and houses in Nottingham where extensions have made gutters and soffits inaccessible The third point is also astounding it reminds me of the Homesteads in USA but we have not got the room. Lastly no mention is made of our overloaded infrastructure. A requirement should be placed on every new building application to take into account the capacity of any infrastructure.

  2. 2 Michael Monk January 23, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Quite amazing. And it is suggested that some fringe political parties are made up of cranks! I wonder what land some people inhabit if they think that loosening controls will result in a boom-time expansion of northern cities….

  3. 3 Albert Ravey February 4, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Policy Exchange – the think tank that seems to have difficulty thinking. Anyone who criticises our “Soviet- style planning system” and then proposes threatening local authorities with uncontrolled planning unless they surrender enough land in the first place has a serious lack of understanding of irony. Policy Exchange also gave us the oleaginous Nick Boles, our current planning minister. Make no mistake about it – the countryside is going to be under attack from people with very little grounding in reality. And we are the enemy.

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