CPRE has a good relationship with the housing and planning minister, Brandon Lewis. He takes a practical approach and he listens. Of course he wants to see more houses built – so does CPRE – but he recognises that achieving this aim requires more than a weakened planning system and high housing targets. That is a welcome change from the approach of some recent planning ministers from both main parties.
It is therefore disappointing that last week Brandon Lewis appointed an expert panel consisting largely of developers and Conservative Party loyalists to advise him on streamlining the local plan-making process. The panel has not a single representative of community or environmental groups.
Who on the panel will make the point that current methodologies for assessing housing numbers are one of the main causes of slow plan-making? Who will query the role of unaccountable LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnerships) in driving through growth strategies that ignore environmental limits and are unacceptable to local people?
Who will query the CLG’s extraordinary claim that “local plans give communities more say in how their area will develop from the amount of housing they need to the infrastructure that has to be put in place to help them thrive”? CLG’s press officers need to get out more. It is hard to find a local councillor who thinks the local plan gives them much say over housing numbers, and I know (as, I am sure, does Brandon Lewis) plenty of local communities who regard the plan-making process as totally disempowering.
Brandon Lewis and I had a little twitter-exchange about the panel. I tweeted: “Oh dear, another developer-led panel on planning, without environment or community reps: outcome, depressingly predictable.” The minister came back with the argument that “local govt is accountable directly to local people & has two reps on the panel”. I am grateful to him for responding, but his response not only overlooks the lack of environmental representation; it misses the point of neighbourhood planning, the best planning innovation of recent years.
The UK’s local government units are some of the biggest in the world. According to Simon Jenkins’s Big Bang Localism, in Britain the average population of the lowest executive tier of government is 118,000, compared with 1,600 in France or 5,000 in Germany. Neighbourhood planning arises from the recognition that many communities do not regard their planning authorities as properly accountable. Ministers deliberately bypassed local planning authorities when they introduced neighbourhood planning; similarly when CPRE talks about community representation, we are not talking about local authorities.
My polite exchange with Brandon Lewis was covered in the Sunday Telegraph under the headline: “War on countryside fear as team is set up to speed new housing.” I do not think this developer-dominated panel signals a war on the countryside. I think it is more likely that CLG simply forgot about the environmental and community angle and, as governments do, unconsciously assumed that the business interest is equivalent to the national interest. But that, in itself is depressing. If the Government is going to get more plans in place and more homes built, it will need to win people’s consent.