As we get nearer the General Election, civil servants are being cleared out of Downing Street and replaced with party political special advisers. The appointment of Policy Exchange’s Alex Morton as the Prime Minister’s adviser on housing and planning is, to say the least, interesting.
Policy Exchange is to this government as the IPPR was to New Labour. The appointment recently of a Policy Exchange trustee as Chair of Natural England was par for the course. Personally I look forward to working with Andrew Sells and reject the implication that donating lots of money to the Conservative Party helps in appointments of this sort.
But I am worried that he will have imbibed the breezy Policy Exchange line that there is lots of countryside out there, much of it rather drab, and it does not matter much if we build on it because there will still be lots left. It is worrying enough that Policy Exchange’s founder Nick Boles, the Planning Minister, sometimes sounds as he thinks like this, but that is understandable as his main priority is to get lots of houses built, and never mind the collateral damage. But if the Chair of the national body that exists to champion the landscape and natural environment also thinks like this, we really have our work cut out.
What of Alex Morton? He has been a prolific and influential researcher for Policy Exchange. He has also been very willing to engage with CPRE. A month or so ago I debated with him at a CPRE meeting in Surrey, alongside a great defender of the Green Belt, Crispin Blunt MP, and we found a few things on which we could agree.
But no one should be under any illusion that his appointment is deeply worrying for all who care about the countryside, or indeed the planning system. As I said to the Daily Telegraph, who broke news of his appointment, ” Alex Morton is absolutely right that the country needs to build many more houses. Unfortunately, however, he also supports a massive increase in building in the countryside… If the PM does not look for other sources of advice on housing and planning, there is a risk that we will waste the next few years in acrimonious battles over development in the countryside – battles which will take up the energy that should be going to building decent homes in the right places.”
Here are some of Alex’s views over the last couple of years. Always keen to be fair, I have included a couple with which I broadly agree.
“It is time for a real overhaul of the planning system. Local authority control has been the centre of the planning system for over 60 years. It must be stripped back and a Presumption against Interference be made central instead. Local plans and planning should focus on genuinely strategic issues and externalities rather than attempting to micromanage every last detail of development.”
Cities for Growth, 2011, p. 6
“Green belts stifle our cities by protecting peripheral and low-quality land, while forcing development into really rural areas and cramming more and more into packed cities.”
Cities for Growth p. 5
“Our local authority plan-led planning system is utterly dysfunctional. Our cities are controlled by a dysfunctional planning system created by the post war Labour government as part of a new and socialist command economy.”
Cities for Growth p. 11
“Developers should be free to offer financial incentives to households being balloted over any planned development to ensure that their proposals went through. The aim should be that some of the increase in land values from granting planning permission should return to the community.”
Making Housing Affordable, 2010, p. 24
“To prevent development occurring in less populated areas such as woodland or meadows, (where no one lives close-by but which are valued by locals and should remain unspoilt,) each local authority should be able to designate up to 75% of its existing undeveloped land as ‘off-limits’ to developers. This would still allow for a huge increase in the numbers of new homes and well over a doubling of the land currently developed in the UK whilst protecting the character of rural areas.”
Making Housing Affordable, p. 24
“With only 10% of England built on we don’t suffer from a shortage of land, but a shortage of land with planning permission.”
Cities for Growth, p. 18
“Local plans should be stripped down. They should be banned from setting out density targets, housing ‘need’, spatial plans, business ‘need’, or requirements on residential or commercial property (e.g. style, size, car spaces).”
Cities for Growth, p. 23
“Our brownfield obsession is like our focus on the 1% of property that is longterm vacant and on the 1% of second homes. It avoids focusing on what we need – which is to build attractive homes on some greenfield sites.”
Cities for Growth, p. 25
“It would be possible to build on 12% rather than the current 10% of English land, solving our current crisis and improving our quality of life while keeping almost all of our current green field undeveloped and improving biodiversity.”
Cities for Growth, p. 26
“Using planning inspectors to drive through housing numbers is not about making the planning system work. It is a substitute for making the planning system work.”
Planning for Less, 2012, p.6
“There are substantial and real concerns around the quality of new homes and the infrastructure with new homes, as well as the fact new homes come with no amenities or improvements to the area they live in. NIMBYism is in many cases all too rational.”
Conservative Home, Turning Housing Around, February 2013
“Promises to give more power to local people are at best half-fulfilled. Planning inspectors remain able to override local councils. Local people and new homes must comply with huge levels of regulation and local council bureaucrat diktats. So local people have little to no say over how new development looks in their area.”
Policy Exchange blog, April 2013
“Ultimately, what planning is about is itself a clash of two visions. One believes issues such as quality can be set out by government plans and diktat. The other believes that planning should protect a handful of our most beautiful natural and built environments, and then mediate between existing local people and those proposing new developments. If you create a framework for negotiation, quality will emerge. We believe this vision, not central control, must be the way forward.”
Policy Exchange blog, November 2013
I am not so confident. I wish Alex Morton well in his new role, but I hope we are not about to move into a new phase of the great Policy Exchange land use experiment.