Probably the least noticed of all the changes in last month’s reshuffle was the dropping of a word from a junior minister’s title. It was, however, also one of the most significant, symbolising a retreat from one of the central – and most attractive – principles which the Coalition carried into power.
The emollient planning minister Greg Clark, who was promoted to the Treasury, had also been responsible for “decentralisation”, recognising his party’s passionate pre-election commitment for devolving power from Whitehall to local people.
But it’s missing from the moniker of his successor, the hawkish Nick Boles, who has publicly backed “chaos” over planning. This week he told a select committee that decentralisation, hailed not long ago as “a core principle for the Conservative Party”, was “rather nebulous” and did not describe his job.
Of course, he said, he still wanted decisions to be made “as close as possible to the people they affect”. But his combative evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee on Monday told a different story, as did the provisions of a Bill published three days later. Despite ministers’ protestations, they are carrying out an unprecedented power grab, which will lead to more and more communities having unwelcome developments imposed on them, without even being allowed a say.
That’s quite a reversal. Before the election, the Tories’ formal planning Green Paper excoriated Labour for taking power “away from locally elected representatives” and giving it to “bureaucrats in Whitehall”: it promised instead “a fundamental and long overdue rebalancing of power away from the centre and back into the hands of local people”. The Lib Dems concurred and the Coalition Agreement duly promised to “promote decentralisation and democratic engagement” to shift power “from Westminster to people”.
That was then, this is now. Frustrated, partly by this newspaper, in their bid to emasculate planning policy earlier this year, ministers are now setting about dismembering much of the system. Far-reaching new measures – driven, top officials say, by the Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office – are being pushed through, many in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill published, with little fanfare, on Thursday.
For a start, ministers are to take over decision-making on some of the most controversial of all proposals – such as those for major industrial developments, quarries, oil and gas facilities, and big chemical works – from councils altogether. Worse, it seems they will not even subject these to the limited degree of democratic scrutiny – parliamentary approval for so-called national policy statements – given to the major infrastructural developments such as roads and power stations that they already determine in this way.
Ministers also considered applying the same decision by diktat to major housing developments, but decided that this flew too obviously in the face of their previous principles. So they decided to do much the same thing another way. Communities secretary Eric Pickles, Mr Boles told the committee, is planning increasingly to employ hitherto little-used powers to “call in” housebuilding proposals before councils for his own decision. This contradicts a promise by the Prime Minister earlier this year that the Government’s reforms would “make it easier for communities to say ‘we are not going to have a big plonking housing estate landing next to the village’.”
When ministers decide that councils are not making enough of the right decisions, they will, under the Bill, be able to go even further and let developers make applications to the Government’s planning inspectorate instead. And there will be no appeal against the inspectorate’s judgment.
Thus, as the committee’s chairman, Clive Betts, pointed out, ministers will be abrogating two fundamental principles – that elected councils decide, at least initially, and that defeated applicants can appeal – at a single stroke. And ministers will also be able to force councils to reduce or drop commitments they have negotiated from developers to build affordable homes.
There’s more. Mr Boles suggested that new, controversial temporary allowances to householders to build bigger extensions could be made permanent and he appeared to weaken the priority given to building on brownfield land. And the Campaign to Protect Rural England is outraged by measures that will give carte blanche to erect broadband installations in protected landscapes and make it harder to protect village greens.
The object of all this is understandable enough: to promote much-needed growth. But experience shows that strong planning helps the economy and that a lax approach harms it. The Tories once knew this: their pre-election Green Paper warned that undemocratic planning turned communities “against the notion of development itself”. It’s time ministers read it again.