It was David Cameron at his best – or maybe his worst. Rather more than two years ago, when The Telegraph’s campaign over the Coalition’s controversial planning reforms was at its height, he invested his credibility in trying to quell rising public concern at the threats they posed to the countryside.
In a coup reminiscent of Tony Blair’s declaring himself “a pretty straight sort of guy” to defuse a row over tobacco sponsorship in sport, the Prime Minister went on BBC television to insist that he would no more endanger lovely countryside than “I would put at risk my own family”. And he added that the 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’. ”
Delivered with evident sincerity, his assurances duly made an impact. But like Blair, he was handing a giant hostage to fortune. And now it is becoming clear – not least to his own backbenchers – that the assurances are turning out to be groundless.
This week, as this newspaper reported, the most extensive analysis yet of the effects of the reforms showed there has been a “substantial increase in both the number and proportion” of housing estates getting planning approval over the past two years.
That, in itself, should be cause for celebration. Britain urgently needs to build more homes – and doing so is one of the best ways of helping the economy. Indeed, the increase is not nearly big enough.
All over the country, villages are under siege by developers. Ancient Stow-on-the-Wold, just 2,000people strong, is fighting 150 houses in the supposedly protected Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the very countryside Mr Cameron compared to his own family. Nearby Moreton-in-Marsh faces what its district councillor calls “an avalanche of housing, way beyond this town’s capacity”.
Last week, Tory MP Martin Vickers told the Commons that Humberston, New Waltham, Waltham, Laceby and “other lovely villages in north-east Lincolnshire” faced “overdevelopment” that will “totally change” their nature. The day before, Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland protested: “Developers are still cherry-picking greenfield sites and building expensive multi-bedroom houses in areas that cannot support significant development.”
Former Coalition minister David Heath said earlier this year that Somerset’s picturesque Norton St Philip is besieged by seven housebuilding applications. Stratford-upon-Avon MP Nadhim Zahawi – a member of No 10’s policy board – warned that the damage risked becoming “the defining legacy of this Government”. Telegraph readers fill our Letters page with similar warnings.
Under the reforms, developers can effectively build wherever they choose – flouting local concerns and planning policies – if councils do not have finalised local plans in place. Ministers intended this nuclear option to speed up plans. Instead it seems to have slowed them down. They are now completed at about half the rate as before the reforms and the CPRE reckons that there will still be a free-for-all in more than 100 local authority areas by next year’s election.
And there lies danger, for anger is translating into voting intention. Last month residents of Uttlesford, Essex, shouted “Roll on May 2015” (the election date) when ministers forced councillors to approve 10,400 new homes. Visiting Gloucestershire, Nick Boles, the planning minister, was challenged by a rebelling, Tory voter to apologise to the local MP, and other Tories in marginals, for losing them their seats next year. And, little noticed in Westminster, Ukip is campaigning vigorously on local planning issues in the Government’s heartlands.