12 September 2021

Weekly Briefing: U-turn for the worse

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‘The time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do – tear it down and start again.’

This was how Boris Johnson introduced his government’s planning consultation last year. No more ‘tinkering at the edges’, it was time for ‘radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’.

A bad Buckinghamshire by-election and some discouraging polls later and the PM’s courage seems to have desered him. The promise to liberalise planning, so welcomed by campaigners for more housing, will apparently be ‘watered down’ in the face of hostile MPs and disgruntled Home Counties homeowners. Perhaps the change of heart has something to do with another story in the same paper about Johnson wanting to govern for another decade – realpolitik beats radicalism, and all that.

If true, it will be both disappointing and predictable. Governments are always saying they will sort out the housing crisis, but baulk at having to actually take on the propertied class and organisations like the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

The debate is now little more than a series of tired memes and anti-development fig leaves about ‘concreting over the countryside’, ‘spoiling the character of the area’ and the vital importance of ‘local democracy’. ‘Democracy’ here meaning the small but vocal minority of people who object to new development. We hear far less from the young families who might like somewhere to live, but whose homes don’t end up being built.

And even if ‘concreting over’ some of the country is the price for younger people being able to get on the housing ladder, so be it. Must we so fetishise ‘green space’ that anywhere with a blade of grass is treated as some kind of national treasure, even when doing so is stopping a generation getting on in life?

As for the so-called ‘green belt’, much of it isn’t even that green. Plenty of it, not least the nearly 87,000 acres of green belt in Greater London, is unremarkable urban land that would probably be improved by new housing.

Nor has enough been done to challenge the logic underpinning our current system, that people have some kind of innate right to object to things being built near them. Well, frankly, why? There’s no reason that buying a property entitles you to demand its environs be preserved in aspic – and it’s not the case in other countries with better housing outcomes than us.

One thing that’s surprising about this U-turn (with the usual caveats about waiting for the details) is that the Government has been willing to risk political capital elsewhere. Not just by introducing the new Health and Social Care Levy, but also getting rid of the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, despite a chorus of outraged opposition. See also the decision to suspend the triple-lock on the state pension – a temporary measure that really ought to become permanent.

Still, hope is not completely lost on the planning front. Tomorrow, Tory MP John Penrose will present a bill promoting every YIMBY’s favourite policy – street votes on new development. We’ll have a piece first thing on Monday outlining why that’s such a good idea. Let’s hope someone in Number 10 reads it and agrees…

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.