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As the growth row over Heathrow goes on, don't forget the one over housing - and building on the Green Belt

By Paul Goodman
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There was more in ConservativeHome's newslinks this morning about Ministerial disagreements over Heathrow, which are being projected by suggestions that Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, may be moved.  The report was from the Financial Times (£).

The lobby is writing less about the other big divergence of view over building and growth - namely, over housing and the green belt  This is probably because are no suggestions that Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, will be moved in the reshuffle.

But the row runs just as deep.  Consider two reports which we've linked to this week.  The first is from the Daily Telegraph and carries a quote from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman:

“We set out the position on the green belt in the national planning policy framework. “The coalition agreement commits the Government to safeguarding the green belt - that policy framework sets that out very clearly. The policy is as set out in that policy framework.”

And that's that, then - or rather it isn't.  For yesterday the Daily Mail reported that

"The Treasury is prepared to ‘have a fight’ with green campaigners by pushing through rules which would let ministers redesignate areas of greenbelt as available for development... George Osborne plans to let ministers rather than local councils decide where to build hundreds of thousands of houses by reclassifying them as projects of national importance."

So what's going on?  A full exploration of what's happening would consider  -

  • The degree to which making building on the Green Bel easier would boost growth in the medium and short-term (if at all - the consequences are hotly contested).
  • The debate within the Government over centralism and localism (and immigration).

- and I hope to return to all of them next week.  For the moment, though, I'll simply point out that the disagreement reflects less a personality clash between Ministers - though Alex Morton's piece in today's Telegraph is worth reading in that context - than a long-standing one between Departments.  Very simply, the Treasury's bias on planning is centralist and seen through the lens of boosting growth, while DCLG is localist and gives more weight to environmental considerations.

Treasury sources suggest that the Mail's report was broadly accurate.  How is that to be reconciled with the words of David Cameron's spokesman? (He would have been thinking less of CLG's view than that of the Liberal Democrats, who essentially share it).

The Treasury insists that the Number Ten spokesman was simply repeating the present position - which may change.  This isn't inconsistent with what the latter said: after all, Ministers would doubtless argue that the Green Belt is still "safeguarded" were building on it made easier.

In the meanwhile, CLG are having none of it, insisting that building on the green belt wouldn't be a growth panacea, that the Department is doing plenty for growth anyway, and that the political consequences for the Party of seeking to build on the green belt could be severe.

One CLG source this morning deployed the word "headbangers" to me when describing some of the positions associated with the Treasury.  Furthermore, EU interference in matters affecting planning is on the rise: consider Strategic Environmental Assessments, the Wild Birds Directive, the Nirates Directive, the Water Directive, the Aarhus Convention...

Ian Birrell, Mr Cameron's former speechwriter, is a very long way from being a headbanger, but if you want to read an argument for housebuilding put at its most uncompromising see here.  More, as I say, next week.


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