In light of history, it is a bold – some might say foolhardy – claim about a new Housing Secretary that they could substantially improve the planning system. But that seems to hold for Simon Clarke.
In 2020, as a minister at the same department, he spoke up for a ‘clear, unashamedly ambitious strategy for growth’. He understands the power of markets and of allowing investment. And there is reason to hope that he can also navigate the political challenges.
To say that attempting planning reform is like trying to thread a needle is to wildly understate the difficulty of the task. It is more like venturing inside an enormous piece of machinery to fix it while it is still operating. It can be possible, but only with extreme care. One wrong step, and you will be crushed by the massive political forces whirling around you.
In the words of one commentator, ‘Nimbys are extremely powerful. You cannot beat them head on. Planning to ‘smash’ them is like the Polish army gearing its cavalry up to ‘smash’ the Wehrmacht in 1939.’
Mr Clarke has recent lessons to draw on. The 2020 White Paper vividly showed the dangers of attempting to crush the preferences of the two thirds of voters who are homeowners. It led to one of the largest backbench revolts in Parliamentary history, to the blossoming of a whole new national counterpart to CPRE – the Community Planning Alliance – and ultimately to the resignation of the Housing Secretary responsible.
And a fascinating piece on green energy that the new Housing Secretary wrote in a 2018 Centre for Policy Studies report gives tantalising hope.
By way of background, national planning policy has ruled out onshore wind turbines since 2015. Although many people are relaxed about them, those who hate them are very vocal indeed, and they tend to live in the rural areas where new wind farms are most likely to be feasible. So if planners or politicians impose them from above, the objectors will wreak their political revenge on those responsible.
Decisions by representative democracy inevitably create more veto players because the strongest objectors are single issue voters who will punish incumbent representatives. What’s more, it is hard for a top-down planner to work out which sites offer the best combination of low local opposition and high economic return.
Clarke’s proposed solution, foreshadowing the successful Octopus Energy initiative in the same vein, involves direct democracy: allowing local communities to choose to back onshore wind. In his own words:
But if Conservatism is about localism and trusting the people, then surely local people should be able to decide whether they want to host an onshore wind farm or not? Not least because the polling suggests they want to, with a recent YouGov poll finding that fewer than one in four dislike the prospect of living near a wind farm, and fewer still if it is community-owned.
We should therefore allow more generous community benefit packages to be permitted, enabling communities to benefit directly from hosting wind turbines. These packages could take the form of lower energy bills or investment in local infrastructure […] I would never support wind farms being imposed on people against their will. If a community votes no in a local referendum, their wishes must be respected. But equally, they should be given the chance to say yes. As things stand, Whitehall prevents local people from approving developments that could provide cheap, clean energy and much-needed investment in less well-off rural areas, as well as creating a positive feedback loop that should lead to ever improving technology.
A Housing Secretary who understands, on day one, the possibility for win-win ways forward can be a powerful creature indeed. The existence of win-win options means that crushing the Nimbys, even if it were possible, is not necessary to fix the planning system. There are easier ways.
And his piece shows a sensitive understanding of what bothers voters and what doesn’t. Allowing existing wind turbines to be upgraded, as he also suggests, will upset far fewer locals. The same opt-in philosophy might be applied to solar farms, or perhaps even fracking.
The piece illustrates the power of devolution to communities. He clearly understands the importance of that concept. As a minister in the same department he spoke for ‘empowering local communities by devolving money, resources, and control away from Westminster.’
He will already be aware of other promising ideas for locally-driven planning reform from Ben Southwood, Samuel Hughes and the CPS’ own Alex Morton. Some of those can be implemented quickly without legislation. The authors have drafting ready if he wishes to ask for it.
The department has been working for months on implementing street votes, which would let residents of a single street collectively grant themselves planning permission, harnessing the incentives of development for themselves. Mr Clarke kindly spoke up for the idea in the House, in a question to the minister about an earlier flavour known as ‘better streets’.
As I wrote in 2018, for a long time Liz Truss has been absolutely right about the need to build more homes, so Mr Clarke should have the backing of the Prime Minister. He has the subtlety of thought and the imagination to find politically workable solutions, and he understands the critical importance of growth.
After many decades of relative decline, UK GDP per capita is now 29% lower than the United States and 17% lower than Germany. This Government has the power to unleash a new era of higher growth. The biggest lever – improving planning – now lies in Mr Clarke’s hands, but he may only have two years. We should all wish him luck.
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