Green issues – or so the conventional wisdom goes – fall off the public and political agenda when the economy turns down. In fact that is no longer true: environmental concerns have become so entrenched in Britons’ values that they remain remarkably robust in bad times as well as good. Even so, it is rare for one actually to come under an ever brighter spotlight as the economic outlook darkens – as is now happening with the Government’s planning reforms.
Certainly, prospects could hardly be more perilous. This week, as youth unemployment passed the million mark, the Bank of England slashed its growth forecasts for both this year and next. The chance of a double-dip recession sharply increased, while the eurozone crisis grew ever more critical. And yet the great planning controversy – which had seemed to be going quiet over the past weeks as ministers got down to working painstakingly through the suggested amendments to the much-criticised draft National Planning Policy Framework – broke out again as intensely as ever.
In a remarkable article in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday – the very day she went to No 10 to talk the plans over with the Prime Minister – Dame Fiona Reynolds, the director-general of the National Trust, announced that its campaign against “mistakes that will lock us into inefficient, ugly and expensive development patterns for ever” was “far from over”. And it emerged that Tory ministers had broken ranks with the party leadership by urging their colleagues to scrap the proposals and start again. “Downing Street is completely out of touch on this subject,” one was reported as saying. “It is causing widespread anger out the country.”
By contrast, many of the most senior figures in the Government have become ever more determined radically to shake up the planning system as the economic news has got worse, since they see it as a precondition of restoring growth. The proposal is expected to feature prominently in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in 10 days, along with plans for Britain to build its way out of trouble by constructing roads, other infrastructure and homes. Unsurprisingly, Dame Fiona warned that the Government could end up publishing its draft proposals “more or less unaltered, using the current crisis as a smokescreen”.
Both positions, let it be said, are honourable, far removed from their opponents’ caricatures of ministers repaying fatcat developer funders or of preservationists out to defend every blade of grass. Both want to see growth restored and many more houses built: they differ fundamentally on how to go about it.
Who would not sympathise with the Coalition leadership as the economy not only fails to respond to its tough medicine, but becomes ever more critically ill? But seizing on the reforms as a cure is akin to a desperately sick patient resorting to quackery. There is simply no evidence that the planning system inhibits growth. Inquiry after inquiry has failed to find any, and the Chancellor’s endlessly repeated claim that it costs the country £3 billion a year turns out to be based on an estimate three decades old.
Building houses can certainly be a good way to revive sick economies. Constructing hundreds of thousands helped Britain survive the depression of the 1930s, and formed the foundation of Brazil’s economic miracle 40 years ago. The Centre for Economic and Business Research estimated that trebling the number of new homes by 2015 would create over 200,000 new jobs and increase GDP by £75 billion. And they are desperately needed: fewer are now being built than at any time since the 1920s, and Shelter has estimated that 2.5 million young people are postponing starting families because they don’t have a place of their own.
But, as even ministers now acknowledge, it is too little finance, not too much planning, that is preventing housebuilding. Developers are already sitting on enough land, with planning permission, to build a terrace of homes from John O’Groats to Land’s End, and – as a Campaign to Protect Rural England report showed last week – an ever-growing supply of brownfield land provides space enough for nearly 1.5 million new dwellings. Indeed, planning can ensure that the new homes, when they are built, go where people actually want to live – overwhelmingly in the cities and towns where they work and which have good transport – rather than reproducing the empty, unsellable “ghost estates” that litter the largely unplanned Irish countryside. And since most growth will be driven by urban areas (look at the revival of Manchester) this will be of particular benefit to the economy.
No one denies the planning system needs some reform, but crippling it will do nothing for growth, while improving it could genuinely boost the economy. As the financial crisis deepens, it becomes ever more critical that the Government understands the difference.