And then there is the new, little-noticed legislation which gives ministers the extraordinary power to tell local communities and local councils that they can no longer take planning decisions for themselves. If Eric Pickles, by fiat, deems a council to be too slow in deciding on planning applications or to be taking too many of the ‘wrong’ decisions, then developers will be allowed to apply direct to the Planning Inspectorate to have their applications considered and imposed on communities.
Of course there will be time when a national need for new infrastructure will have to take precedence, but I can safely predict that there will be a lot of anger when people discover they have been denied any right to have a say as unpopular and inappropriate developments go head on the say-so of a national quango reporting direct to ministers.
Finally, just in the last few days, new changes have come into force to make it easier for payday lenders and betting shops to open up in our local high streets, including putting pubs and betting shops side-by-side in the same premises. Too many of our high streets are becoming too full of betting shops, payday lenders and pawnbrokers.
And once that happens, it actually discourages other types of businesses from setting up in the same street. People know that things are out of kilter and want to redress the balance but instead of giving communities greater powers, as we have been arguing for, to shape the kind of town centres and high streets they want, Eric Pickles has moved in completely the opposite direction by encouraging a free-for-all.
Why is all this happening, especially when Eric Pickles and David Cameron claim to be supporters of localism? The truth is that the Government’s economic policy has failed. Our economy is flatlining and they have been thrashing about trying to find ways to boost economic growth. There is a Treasury view that planning is the problem and that if you get rid of the restrictions then the economy will recover.
Let’s take housing. We are currently building less than half the homes we need as a country than we need to meet demand – home completions are at their lowest level since the 1920s. As a result, house prices are nine times the average wage and rents in the private rented sector are soaring.
But the Government’s latest plan – the help to buy scheme – has been widely criticised because it is likely to fuel increased house prices, pushing home ownership even more out of the reach of our young people, while doing absolutely nothing about housing supply.
Building the houses we need is probably the most difficult planning challenge, and one where all of us have to take responsibility. Supply and demand are unbalanced. House prices are still far too high for new buyers, and young people and families starting out face an overheated housing market with not enough new homes being built.
I agree with Nick Boles on one point. We can’t carry on moaning about the difficulty our children are facing in finding somewhere to live while opposing all planning applications for new housing. But to deal with this, we have to make localism really work.
Local communities should decide where they want new homes and developments to go and then give their consent in the form of planning permission. It’s the difference between having a say and having it done to you. We know that planning can be very contentious precisely because it is about the places we live in and care about, so the system has to have the support of the public to make it work.
It was very revealing that last year, the first response of CLG ministers to criticisms of what they were doing was to label these voices as “semi-hysterical” Nimbys. It shows that they are really about; a top-down approach rather than one that makes the system work from the bottom up.
My view is quite different. I believe communities can make these decisions for themselves. I don’t think that if given that power, communities will ignore the needs of young people and the nation as a whole. In fact, if they can shape what happens – deciding where the homes will go, being certain that the extra infrastructure (schools, shops, and GPs surgeries) will be there, feeling comfortable with the design and knowing that their children and people on the local waiting list will be at the head of the queue – then I am confident that communities will take the right decisions about what is best for their needs.
However, this approach is a leap of faith for Whitehall, which for far too long has maintained that it knows best. It knows where homes must go. It knows what communities need and want. I profoundly disagree. Communities should be able to determine their own future and decide what their area should look like in five, ten, or twenty years’ time. And with that trust will come clear responsibility; after all, there will be no-one else to blame for not enough homes.
Labour is often asked, “Well, what would you do differently?” I think we need to reject the orthodoxy of the past – that people can’t be trusted to make the choice – and give more power, more responsibility, and more rights to local people, and then let them decide.
We should put our trust in them and their elected representatives to create communities that can balance yesterday, today and tomorrow. It’s a vision which could re-energise a nation that too often feels disconnected from politics; to give people the chance to take the responsibility of being in control.
If we look back at how our country has developed, we have managed to build a lot of homes, open a lot of businesses and shops and develop new industries while at the same time looking after the places that are special to us – our island’s unique and beautiful landscapes that we cherish.
Ultimately the planning system should be there to help us to find the right balance for the places we live in. A balance between progress, growth and respect for our communities’ character. And in my experience if you let people take responsibility for those things, they will respond.