The new government ministers: reasons to be cheerful

In my last blog I stressed that Ministers are at least as important as manifesto pledges. So what should we make of the Ministers appointed by David Cameron this week? I think those who care about the countryside should be pretty pleased.

One of David Cameron’s strengths as prime minister is that he has tried to resist the temptation to reshuffle ministers just as they are mastering their briefs. Nevertheless, the last Parliament saw three environment secretaries (and a total change in junior ministers), three transport secretaries and four housing ministers. So it is good to see some consistency in the departments most closely relevant to CPRE’s work.

The new CLG (Department of Communities and Local Government) secretary of state, Greg Clark, introduced the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in the early years of the Coalition. CPRE (along with the Daily Telegraph, the National Trust and others) fought a fierce battle over the first draft of the NPPF, but Greg Clark listened, made changes and won respect even from those who disagreed with him. Perhaps of even greater long term significance than the NPPF was his introduction of neighbourhood planning, about which he spoke in his February 2011 CPRE lecture).

Since leaving CLG, Greg Clark has won great credit for his work promoting city government. I saw him at a party conference fringe meeting bathed in love by a number of Labour municipal leaders, possibly a unique experience for a Tory minister. I am sure that as communities secretary he will continue to promote a better distribution of national wealth across the country, including the concept of the ‘northern powerhouse’. As an ex-Treasury minister I hope he will also have some ideas on how to counter the power of that generally malign department.

So Greg Clark is a very good appointment, and I am also pleased that Brandon Lewis will remain as housing and planning minister. Brandon Lewis is interested in getting things done, rather than in fighting battles. It amazes me how some of the most bellicose pro-housing polemicists seem to think that the way to get houses built is to have punch-ups with the likes of CPRE. It is far more effective, as Brandon Lewis realises, to work with conservationists and community groups to get agreement to the new housing the country so badly needs.

And while I am being uncharacteristically kind to politicians, it is worth noting that Eric Pickles, easy to mock because of his unhealthy fascination with bin collections and parking regulations, genuinely cared about the countryside, particularly the Green Belt. He did not do as much as CPRE would have liked to protect it, but he stood up as much as he could to the Treasury-Policy Exchange line that releasing land for housing is much the same thing as building houses.

At the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) it is good to see Liz Truss reappointed as secretary of state. CPRE had a stimulating roundtable with her earlier this year to discuss how to promote local food webs and strengthen landscape protection, and she was knowledgeable and passionate about both subjects. We look forward to carrying on the discussion.

Liz Truss was only appointed as environment secretary last July and did not have time to have much impact. It will be interesting to see whether she is willing and able to stand up for the environment and countryside, which was low down the pecking order under the last government.

George Eustice, a strong supporter of helping young people engage with farming, remains as minister of state. The new minister in the department is Rory Stewart, who wrote a fascinating article on upland farming for Green Alliance last year.

Stewart argued against a ‘narrow, reductive, theoretical approach to markets and the environment, which is the antithesis of conservatism’. Too often, he wrote, only two values are recognised, ‘perhaps because they are those which can most easily be measured: profit, and biodiversity, i.e. how to maximise the income, or the species numbers, on a given patch of land…. Conservatism, by contrast, should emphasise the multitude of values that exist in the landscape: including history, archaeology, beauty, past perceptions of that landscape and the continuing life and memories of its inhabitants. It should approach these features as independently valuable: as ends in themselves, not simply as a means towards some larger financial or biological objective.’

At the Department for Transport, it is good to see Patrick McLoughlin return as transport secretary. CPRE is deeply worried about the scale of the roads programme, but the delusion that new roads will relieve congestion and foster growth is shared by the entire political class. As secretary of state Patrick McLoughlin has also championed better design of HS2 and, in his 2012 CPRE lecture, declared war on unnecessary traffic sign clutter. I hope that his new team will continue the work of John Hayes, who has been reshuffled, to ensure that new transport infrastructure is less ugly than we have got used to and even, where possible, positively beautiful.

Finally the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). I have never met the new Secretary of State, Amber Rudd, but she is serious about tackling climate change, which is a good thing. In tackling carbon emissions I hope she will resist the temptation to focus on energy supply at the expense of conservation and demand management. CPRE recently made the case for a major drive to retrofit existing homes, not least in rural areas, and ensure that new homes waste less energy. Perhaps an early call should be to Greg Clark to see if the drive for zero-carbon homes, which rather lost its way in the last Parliament, can be resumed.

CPRE does not exist to be nice to politicians. As Oliver Letwin (now in the Cabinet) said at our AGM in 2011, we are ‘very frequently an almighty nuisance, and that is exactly as it should be’. Our job is to protect the countryside, even if that means making enemies. So it is inevitable that we will have disagreements with all the politicians I have praised in this piece. I am also aware that the developer-funded, free market think-tankers who regard regulation as inherently suspect and the planning system as some sort of monstrous Soviet imposition, remain influential. So we will not be short of battles. But for now, we look forward to working constructively with a very good set of new ministers, those mentioned in this blog and others.

13 Responses to “The new government ministers: reasons to be cheerful”

  1. 1 Michael Monk May 13, 2015 at 11:06 am

    I have to agree with the comments about Greg Clark as the new Communities Secretary – I attended the CPRE meeting at which he discussed the draft NPPF and I thought he came over as caring about the rural environment and that he was prepared to listen to the points put to him. Let’s hope that continues in his new role.

  2. 2 Tony McDougal May 14, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Good to hear Rory Stewart’s as ever thoughtful comments. Lets hope that this will translate into a halt in cuts to National Park Authority budgets and some real long-term thoughts on future sustainable funding models

  3. 3 geoff lambert May 14, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Your points about Brendon Lewis and Greg Clark are well made. They do appear to listen. We have the evidence in CPRE that the NPPF is being abused by local authorities. In Central Bedfordshire the Conservative council plans to build over 12,000 on 5sq miles of green Belt, we really must ensure these listening ministers are made aware of the abuse being made of their policies and urged to act.

  4. 4 Kristian Niemietz May 15, 2015 at 10:35 am

    “the most bellicose pro-housing polemicists seem to think that the way to get houses built is to have punch-ups with the likes of CPRE”

    -Yes, because that IS the way to get houses built. This crisis has been caused by CPRE and like-minded organisations, and it would quickly sort itself out if CPRE and like-minded organisations dissolved themselves.

    • 5 sspiers May 15, 2015 at 11:06 am

      Even if life was as simple as that, which it isn’t, getting rid of organisations like CPRE wouldn’t work because, like it or not, many people care about the countryside and about places, and will fight to protect them. You would have to get rid of those people: ‘the people have failed us, we need a new one!’

      • 6 Kristian Niemietz May 15, 2015 at 11:26 am

        “You would have to get rid of those people”
        -That’s an old-fashioned and uneconomic way of doing things. No, I would just ignore “those people”. Let them whine. They have no legitimate grievance, and should not be listened to.

    • 7 Alfred May 19, 2015 at 10:31 am

      “Let them whine. They have no legitimate grievance, and should not be listened to.”

      The CPRE website very generously allows you to whine, despite your persistent rudeness and unconstructive comments. Perhaps it would be better if nobody listened to you since you have no legitimate argument – just childish prejudice

  5. 9 Robert Flunder June 11, 2015 at 10:57 am

    I feel less optimistic about the ministerial changes.
    Over the last 2 years Eric Pickles has begun to stick up for the green belt in very practical ways by dismissing plenty of developers Appeals against planning Refusals for countryside development.
    Eric Pickles was the ONLY notable removable from the Cabinet – why, what has he done, who has he offended ?
    I fear he has been removed for actively straying away from the Cameron/Osborne doctrine of allowing developers a free hand, accompanied with a token policy of countryside protection and occasional fine words.

  6. 10 Robert Flunder June 11, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    From Wikipedia – entry on Eric Pickles –

    “By June 2014, Pickles had intervened on 12 windfarm projects and rejected 10 of them, against the recommendations from planning inspectors,[29] rising to 50 rejections by October 2014.[30]”

    Will Greg Clark show such an ‘independent outlook” in defiance of business interests ?

  7. 11 Robert Flunder July 10, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    In the above entries I suggested Eric Pickles had become “independent of mind” from Cameron/Osborne diktats resulting in his removal from his Cabinet job of Secretary of State for Dept of Communities & Local Government (the planning supremo).
    I suggested that CPRE might be premature in thinking his replacement, Greg Clark should be welcomed as someone who might show in his Secretary of State DCLG planning supremo role similar “independence” from Mr Osborne.
    Well its not looking good !
    Reporting in todays FT on Mr Osborne’s July 2015 Budget announcement of further planning regulation relaxation it says :-
    “In a 90 page productivity blueprint, Mr Osborne and Sajid Javid, government Business Secretary, set out plans to introduce a new zonal system in which developers will receive automatic planning permission on all suitable brownfield sites”.
    Of course this is a MAJOR PLANNING MATTER, but it looks like new Planning Supremo, Secretary of State DCLG, Gregg Clark has just been pushed out to the margins of government planning decision making,

    May be Mr Pickles was less likely to go along with this sort of treatment and thus Mr Cameron did not appoint him to his new Administration.

    This does not bode well.

  8. 12 geoff lambert July 12, 2015 at 7:05 am

    As someone with an interest in brown field sites the act of automatic planning permission might just put some of them on a more level playing field with green field sites. I say might because the real costs of brownfield are so much higher than GB that, in many cases, I think it would need much more than this to get me to focus on brown field first. I hold land to make money not to build houses and only when I believe I can get the right return do I make the investment to build. If the government wants guaranteed house building it needs to make land available and commission houses to be built under contract. Holding land and seeing house prices continue to rise, fuelled by shortages of supply, is much more financially rewarding, long may it continue.

  9. 13 Robert Flunder August 20, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    20.8.2015 BBC News – “Chancellor George Osborne has said he wants to reform planning laws to make it easier for villages in England to build new starter homes.”

    Yet again its Osborne announcing a review of planning policy, not Greg Clark, the Secretary of State DCLG who is (in theory) the Minister responsible for Planning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: