David Cameron is a naturally placid type, not overly keen on picking fights with people. The chillaxing Prime Minister tends to avoid confrontation when he can, often pulling out of policies where he thinks a prolonged fight is on the cards. So, why on earth has he decided to reopen one of the bitterest battles of the last parliament, on planning reform?
The Tories were so horrified by the way their changes to the National Planning Policy Framework and the Localism Act upset so many of their natural voters, as well as prominent charities including the National Trust, that they ran away from the reforms and spent two years trying to calm everything down. Now they’re at it once more, announcing really rather ambitious plans to build more homes by overhauling the planning laws.
Changing legislation that controls how many homes can be built in a particular place seems even more pointless when you consider that successive governments have tinkered endlessly with the planning system without achieving very much at all.
Economists estimate that the UK now needs 250,000 new homes every year to keep up with demand (which has more to do with family breakdown and people leaving home before they get married than it does with immigration). But the UK hasn’t built that many properties in a year since 1980.
The effect of this is a spiralling housing benefit bill that the Tories are currently trying to control by shaving bits off here and there, while not removing the key driver in its growth, which is a shortage of housing. The bill for this year is expected to be £24bn, but by 2019-20, it is projected to have fallen back to just above its 2010 level of £23bn, still far too big for the Tories to claim they have shrunk the size of the welfare state.
This is the reason the Tories know they must reignite the row over building more homes. The severity of the UK’s housing crisis is far worse than the severe frown on the face of a Nimby angered by yet another new clutch of homes being built in their back yard.
There is another, slightly less grand reason for reforming the planning system. George Osborne has noted housing’s rise as an issue that voters worry about, and also knows from his party’s history that ambitious ministers who build many homes tend to do pretty well. Harold Macmillan cemented his rise to prime minister by meeting a Tory target to build 300,000 new homes a year early. The Chancellor is keen to move next door in Downing Street at some point, and a legacy like this would help no end. Selfish, perhaps, but anyone keen to see more homes built should be thrilled that someone at the very top has adopted housing provision as a personal mission: it means we might finally see some action.
The action that Osborne has gone for is a curious mix of liberalising planning laws a little further and what appears to be the state intervening more. Londoners will be able to add additional storeys to their properties in some cases, and developers will gain automatic planning permission for developments on “suitable” brownfield sites.
But if a council has failed to produce a local plan, the Government will intervene and write one – detailing how many homes will be built, and where, in each local authority area.
Cameron was, I understand, insistent that these government-written plans include plenty of consultation with local people, because he is wary of further upsetting voters already antagonised by what they feel has been years of central government forcing inappropriate development on their area.
Of course, these reforms alone won’t solve the housing crisis. There are other factors than simply the planning system hindering the country from building enough properties. Chief among those is a serious shortage of skills in the construction sector, which means builders are having to turn down projects because they don’t have the staff to deliver them.
But the reforms do solve two problems, the first being that many councils have not planned for meaningful development in their areas, and the second that development will be imposed on those areas by the Planning Inspectorate even if it is deemed inappropriate by locals.
You would expect a set of reforms like this to upset the groups that had fought so viciously with the Government over its last pop at planning. But, curiously, the Campaign to Protect Rural England described them as “understandable”, and was over the moon about ministers’ renewed promises to protect the Green Belt.
Perhaps this suggests that the Tories have finally cracked the conundrum of how to build enough homes without upsetting small-c conservatives. But I wouldn’t get too excited. When the Government set out on the last tranche of planning policies, initially everyone called those reforms a “Nimby’s charter”. I remember talking to one of those involved in the reforms who warned me that “people are going to get incredibly upset when they realise what this legislation actually means”. In time, he was proved right.
The chances are that many people will get incredibly upset again when they realise that there are going to be more homes built in their areas. At that stage, the Tories will need to grit their teeth and assume that those angry people won’t stay angry once they realise that the new homes which provoked them to hold angry campaign meetings and write furious letters to their MP weren’t that bad, after all, and at least their children can afford a home near by. For Osborne, the prize for gritting his teeth is a glittering one. He just needs to be sure his party will stick by him.