The new government: Treasury and CLG

A number of CPRE members have asked what we should make of the new Government. What follows is largely for them.

It is rather more hopeful than some commentaries from environmentalists. No government will do everything campaigners want – governments cannot achieve what they want, let alone satisfying everyone else. But Ministers, learning on the job, can confound expectations.

I gave initial thoughts on Theresa May as Prime Minister in an earlier blog.

The Treasury

George Osborne has been a dominant figure in government over the past six years. He had a big impact on national life, and many achievements. But it is unlikely he will be missed by conservationists. For all his undoubted qualities, he had a tin ear when it came to listening to the environmental concerns or people worried about development. He interfered constantly in the planning system, but made no effort to understand it.

George Osborne never understood that planning is about more than economic growth. But even if all you are interested in is building stuff, in a democracy you can only do that with consent. He failed to understand that too.

It remains to be seen what impact George Osborne’s departure will have on the Northern Powerhouse, devolution deals, unaccountable Local Enterprise Partnerships, aviation expansion, HS2, the National Infrastructure Commission and the many other things, some good, some bad, that he championed. I don’t expect any sudden shift in policy, though Parliamentary and civil service time for any initiatives will be at a premium as the government machine focuses on withdrawal from the EU.

In any case, it is likely that under Philip Hammond the Treasury will be less overbearing, less inclined to interfere in every aspect of domestic policy. That will be a good thing.

The Department of Communities and Local Government

I am sorry to lose Brandon Lewis as housing and planning minister. We often disagreed, but he listened to CPRE, championed the brownfield-first agenda, and had a genuine passion for neighbourhood planning.

He was given the impossible task of building a million homes in five years without any significant public investment beyond incentives to the private house builders (how much of the £600 million bonuses Persimmon paid to its executive team last month was originally public money?).

When Churchill’s post-war government achieved over 300,000 new homes a year, the state played a huge role. It is blindingly obvious that it must do so again if we really believe there is a housing crisis (I do) and if we want to solve it.

Any such thoughts were supressed by the overriding priority given to deficit reduction, but we now have a chance to look properly at a national programme of publicly funded house building, one that will, in the long term, earn a good return for the Exchequer. Support for this is growing – see, for instance, the latest report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, Building More Homes. This accepts that the housing industry as currently constituted will never build enough homes. It echoes many of the arguments in CPRE’s Getting Houses Built.

But it is important that any house building programme is not just about numbers. We need a combination of Harold Macmillan’s commitment to numbers and Nye Bevan’s commitment to quality. And we should take the opportunity to regenerate run-down urban areas, not let new housing sprawl into the countryside.

Sajid Javid, the new Communities Secretary, was reluctant to support an active role for the state in his previous role as Business Secretary. But post-Brexit the context has changed. Indeed, his old department now has ‘industrial strategy’ in its name – the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Edward Heath would rejoice.

Whatever Sajid Javid thinks about house building, it is clear that he is a strong supporter of the Green Belt. Even as Business Secretary, he stood up for it, saying on the Today programme on 10 July last year: “There’s no need to build on the Green Belt… it’s very valuable and we need it”.

Gavin Barwell, the new Housing and Planning Minister has also been an outspoken supporter of the Green Belt in his Croydon South constituency. He led a campaign to protect local Green Belt, saying: “Croydon has got a huge amount of brownfield land which we should be using to build the housing we so desperately need. That doesn’t mean we should building over the few remaining green spaces that we’ve got.” His Green Belt campaign video can be seen here.

We look forward to working with the new CLG ministers.

Tomorrow I will write about Defra, BEIS (how do you pronounce that?), Transport and the Cabinet Office.

 

 

 

 

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