Until Mr Hancock’s diversionary tactics were deployed last week the excuses were flowing thick and fast from the UK’s Conservative party machine – at least to the party faithful. What had caused the loss of the recent Chesham and Amersham by-election to the Liberal Democrats? The Tory vote had never dipped below 50% in all previous elections. Everything possible is being blamed, from complacency caused by the recent victory in Hartlepool (there was), via a poor candidate (he was) and a weak campaign (it was), via the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway mangling the Chiltern Hills in the constituency (it is), to fury over the recently-announced proposed changes to the UK’s planning regime for residential development. But before we move on, we have to mention the Tory candidate’s best excuse of all for the LibDem victory – he accused them of “throwing all their resources at the campaign”. Damned unsporting behaviour, chaps.
There can be no doubt that a major reason for so many Tories avoiding the polling booths and staying at home, was indeed extreme disquiet at the new proposed planning regime. Folk generally are unhappy even with the existing planning system, perhaps any residential planning system, for one of two reasons. Either it is because it does not produce enough cheap housing so that the young and poor can get a foot on the housing ladder, either as owners or tenants. Or, alternatively, it permits the development of ghastly and poor-quality housing too close to where the unhappy complainer lives. Sometimes both reasons are cited by the same grumbler at the same time; not an easy position to take, but certainly not uncommon. Of course, should the supply of UK housing suddenly be increased dramatically, as Harold Macmillan, minister of housing in the 1950’s, succeeded in doing, then house prices would almost certainly stagnate or fall; that would not enchant the voters either.
So planning reform inevitably has become a no-go area for successive governments, of all hues. There is just no way of solving the conundrum. David Cameron, not a man noted for grasping nettles, did surprisingly allow James Brokenshire, his minister for housing, to begin tackling the issue from an oblique angle. Brokenshire realised that one of the issues which so annoys suburban and rural residents (i.e. natural Conservative voters) is the ugliness and poor quality of many modern housing estates: ghastly banality in its most extreme form, no reference to local building types or history, over-dense with tiny gardens, and no serious attempts at landscaping or providing local service facilities such as better roads, doctors’ surgeries, schools, playgrounds and so on. His bright idea was to appoint the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton to chair the Building Better, Building Beautiful, Commission. Crazy name and maybe a crazy idea, but Scruton, a man of considerable aesthetic sensibility but also one who liked a fight, was perfect to head it up. If the quality and design of house-building could be radically improved, Brokenshire and Scruton reasoned, then local residents might be more inclined to support new housing near them (or at least not object too virulently). Alas, and this is not the place to go through the detail, it was not to be. Scruton was forced out (not by the volume house-builders, though they were delighted), then reinstated, but died soon after.
Surely though this idea had to be part of a solution to the almost automatic dislike and distrust of newly-built houses. Improve how they look, set them in a more pleasant environment, build them better (current standards are abysmally low for all the green and non-carbon urges of modern building-control legislation), and neighbours might be more tolerant of the idea of building close by. So, what happened after Scruton's untimely death?
Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019 promising to build more housing. This was a typical Boris pledge - a vote-catcher but without detail. That little puzzle was handed to new Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick and his deputy, Christopher Pincher. Jenrick was not thought one of the Johnson government’s most impressive appointments, but in office has proved to be surprisingly robust and has taken his planning role seriously. As Secretary of State he can “call in” larger and controversial planning decisions, and overrule the decisions of local authorities and even those of his own Planning Inspectors (who hear planning appeals). Many ministers tread very lightly in this area, though there has been criticism by observers that Planning Inspectors are often too inclined to favour developers (partly because planning law is structured to do the same). Jenrick has taken an intelligent interest in planning matters and made some sensible decisions.
So there was hope that when his ministry produced a green paper (essentially an advanced legislative proposal for public discussion) for reform of the planning system it might just be a clever solution to building more houses without offending more voters. As it turns out, it may, if enacted, produce more houses, but it will almost certainly repel large numbers of voters.
On the face of it, the proposal looks simple and intelligent. Areas of the country will be designated as one of three zones. In urban areas, zoning will automatically permit redevelopment, subject to rules on use, height, density and so on – not much different to now. In the countryside, land will either be protected zones – no redevelopment allowed except in very unusual or specific purposes - or permitted zones. The latter is not quite build-what-you-like, as there will be detailed rules as in urban areas, but it will take the fundamental, in-principle decisions away from local authorities. If the land is so zoned, it can be built on. And the power of local government and local people to object will be hugely eroded.
This might work in countries with large amounts of vacant land; it is the basis of how planning works in the USA. But in the USA huge areas of land are protected yet enough land is left to be developed for centuries, often at very low densities; houses are thus bigger and cheaper. Wonderful, of course, but very difficult to achieve in the UK where even putting up a garden shed spoils somebody’s view, may get used as a welding workshop, will disturb some rare newt or butterfly, or might establish a precedent leading to ever larger and more vulgar sheds.
Which brings us back to Chesham and Amersham and that protest vote. The voters there have had more than enough development for one lifetime just from pointless HS2 permanently scarring their views and walks. But they know, or fear, that what remains of rural Buckinghamshire is dreamland for developers, heaven for house-builders, with country views (until another developer builds in front) and fast access both into London and outwards into the rest of southern England. The idea that large areas of the constituency will be zoned for building and there is nothing they or their local authority can do about it is pouring gramoxone* on their carefully- tended lawns.
The voters are not the only ones to be getting wound up by Mr Jenrick’s proposals. So are many Conservative M.P.’s in southern seats. They would like less house-building in the south and more emphasis on those target parliamentary seats in the Midlands and North still held by the Labour party. After all, when folk complain about the unaffordability of housing for themselves or their offspring, they are not thinking of Rochdale or Gateshead or even Hartlepool. Housing is very affordable there. At the moment the problem is jobs, not so much jobs themselves, but well-paid jobs and progression and promotion to better-rewarded and higher-status jobs. There is already a clear drift north of both larger-scale employers (who like the lower costs and salaries) and creative types (who like cheap premises and lower living costs). Early days, but this may well be a long- term trend which starts to revive northern cities, as we saw in the 1960’s (also helped by government infrastructure spending) which was when Labour really consolidated its "red wall" of parliamentary seats.
But life as a Tory M.P. is never simple. Or indeed as a southern voter. Carry on with the old planning system by all means; let the locals run their protest groups and give a wary nod to Extinction Rebellion breaking a few fences and police heads in the cause of saving the green and fairly pleasant Home Counties. But what that will do in the longer run is push more employers and young employees north, to a warm welcome and cheap housing, with lots of brownfield, pre-used, land to build new premises and starter homes on. And there will come a point when the consequent economic decline of the south becomes noticeable. Housing costs may well ease in Chesham and Amersham then but elderly and unemployed voters may turn out to be ungrateful voting rebels. Mr Jenrick will have moved on long before that, but his successor may well wish he had tried a bit harder to solve the UK’s great planning conundrum.
*A lethal weedkiller