Imposing housing developments from on high will build nothing but resentment
"Localism is dead". So the chief executive of a shire counties council informed astonished parish councillors last week. Having spent over a year drawing up their new Neighbourhood Plan under the Government's flagship Localism Act, they had just been told that their village was in fact no longer to be a village at all, but was now being designated a "Garden City".
Hold on, they said. Wasn't it only last week that Eric Pickles scrapped the infamous regional plan which imposed unfeasibly large housing targets on councils? They'd read his very words. "The flawed top-down targets of regional planning built nothing but resentment .... This government is delivering on its pledges to decentralise power from Whitehall and its quangos down to local people." Hear hear, they'd cried.
The news release which accompanied Mr Pickles' announcement put it clearly. "Ministers believe that planning and housebuilding works best when it is locally led and people have more control in shaping and deciding on development in the places they live."
That's it, said the villagers. We were told that we'd be in charge. We accept that we need some new housing, so we've identified where it should go. It won't be popular with everyone, but there will be a local referendum, and the plan will go through. (In fact, the first vote on a neighbourhood plan was held successfully last week.)
"Ah" said the chief executive "but we've got to get our local plan past the planning inspector. And he won't accept any fewer houses than the number originally set in the regional strategy. So, you see, it's not really for you to decide at all."
Up and down the country, councils are being told the same thing. Come up with at least the same housing numbers set by Gordon Brown, or else. Local plans have started to be overturned by inspectors. The estate agency Savills predicts that a lot of decisions will be made this way. Next week, the Campaign to Protect Rural England will publish a report warning of a return to 'planning by appeal'.
This would be doubly disastrous, as recent history tells us. It would build more of the local resentment the Government says it wants to prevent, but paradoxically it wouldn't build much needed housing. As the think thank Policy Exchange points out, toxic local planning rows produce a lot of pain for little gain.
Ministers are understandably fixed on two imperatives: the need to generate economic growth, and the difficulty which young people face in buying their first homes. They see that new housing starts are very low, and they desperately want to boost the number.
But why aren't houses being built? Developers are actually sitting on over a million planning permissions. They are waiting for land prices to increase so that they can maximise their investment. Rewarding property speculators with more planning permissions won't create more buyers, so it won't deliver houses, but it will benefit their shareholders.
If the Government believes it can generate a new wave of construction and spread opportunity by issuing national orders to override local planning, it is in for a rude shock. There won't be enough new houses, they will still be unaffordable, and the communities who were promised local decision-making will be furious.
To meet the ambition of more affordable homes, we need more radical solutions. That's why the ideas for self-build being set out by Policy Exchange today are so interesting. They would give local control over what was built, strip away the regulation that makes new homes bland, and deliver housing quickly.
The quality of housing is as important as the numbers. But a target driven approach from Whitehall won't build the beautiful homes people want: it will mean more soulless boxes and random damage to the countryside.
On April Fool's Day, the transitional protection given to councils while they prepare their plans will be lifted. Already, the dangers of inappropriate development are being seen. Nearly 300 dwellings have been allowed by planning inspectors on open countryside in the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.
The politicians who campaigned in Eastleigh against unwanted development now seek to impose it everywhere else. Nick Clegg's big idea is to build 'garden cities' or suburbs in open countryside. Yet there are still enough brownfield sites in England for 1.5 million new homes. There are urban areas - not just in the north - crying out for regeneration. If we want garden cities, let's put the gardens into cities.
Gordon Brown promised opportunity and 3 million new homes, yet construction collapsed. He pledged 15 new "eco-towns", by-passing the planning system, yet just one was delivered. He thought he could pull levers, set targets, and housing would materialise. Everyone was disappointed. The Government must avoid the same mistakes.
We promised local communities power. The Conservative manifesto explicitly pledged to "abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans". We will not secure affordable new housing by reneging on localism. We will merely forfeit trust.