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Stormed at with shot and shell, Nick Boles rides into planning's Valley of Death


By Paul Goodman
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Gunfire greets the new Planning Minister and his views on building more homes...

Consider the prospect that Nicholas Boles, the new Planning Minister at CLG, surveys as he takes up his new duties, like some epaulette-garnished light dragoon peering towards the Russian guns at Balaclava.  Cannon to the right of him, cannon to the left of him, and all that.  On the one side are George Osborne and the Treasury, urging instant housebuilding, a purging of green belt rules and regulations, Growth Now.  On the other are CLG and the massed ranks of Conservative councillors in the shires and the Mail and Telegraph stables - plus those who tend to vote for those councillors and read those papers: the pressed voters of the town and suburb extremities who, understandably, don't want to lose the little green space they've got.

Somewhere amidst the smoke and fog of war David Cameron can be glimpsed roaming restlessly, his mind on many things.  And at the end of the valley are the most deadly guns of all: those of the town hall planners who have run the system since the era of Clement Attlee, and thus have everything to lose from change.  Indeed, Mr Boles has the distinction, perhaps unique even to this Minister-battered age, of coming under fire before his appointment was actually confirmed.  The mere rumour of it sent those so disposed scurrying to Google Search, where they rapidly dug out some colourful remarks of the kind politicians craft to give fizz to a speech (he had described opponents of planning reform as "hysterical, scare-mongering, latter-day luddites").

...But how green is the green belt anyway?

The guns have continued to rage ever since. The new Planning Minister came under fire from the Daily Mail for three successive days last week, as it probed his current living arrangements and those of his family.  "Save our precious green belt," one of its editorials simultaneously pleaded.  Presumably the sub-editor on duty wasn't entirely clear about the difference between the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty, perhaps because he is among the one-third or so of Britons who live in a metropolitan area (as I do much of the time).  I don't blame him: the second factor tends to diminish understanding of the first, and fewer people than like to admit it are unsure of the distinction anyway.

So let's try to make it clear.  Much of the green belt isn't precious - unless you believe, to borrow an image from Policy Exchange's Cities for Growth, that a giant field of oilseed rape, say, lifts the heart more than does a science park set amidst "a rolling landscape of woods, open space, building and water".  For the avoidance of doubt, green belt policy states that "the quality of landscape is not relevant to the inclusion of land within a green belt of its continued protection": no wonder some 60% of it is given over to intensive farming - hence that oilseed rape - and roughly 7% is already developed.  But around half of those polled associate the green belt, as that sub-editor does, with woodland, open space, nature reserves and country parks.

Housing: the winners and the losers

ConservativeHome readers scarcely need to be reminded that if demand rises and supply is restricted, the price of the good in question will rise.  So it has proved with the restrictions that govern this often cheerless landscape.  There is a knock-on effect on brownfield sites, as development is packed onto them: London got less green during the 1990s, as its built-up area grew at 1.5% a year.  The winners are the haves, those who already own homes, as Britons like to do: house prices tripled between 1995 and 2010, and recession has not, to date, brought them tumbling down.  Never mind for a moment that many of these are shoebox houses, crammed into the confined spaces created by the system.

The losers are those that don't have homes at all, locked out by the squeeze on space and use.  Housebuilding is at a record low and the average age of a housebuyer is now 35.  So how can Boles square the policy circle - in other words, deliver lots of new homes for Mr Osborne (I don't mean for him personally) without enraging Tory councillors, not to mention voters of all political colours and none, and keep Fleet Street off his back in the process.  The Treasury, which likes to control everything - not least other departments - while raking in the tax receipts rather liked Labour's Regional Spatial Strategies, which eventually collapsed beneath the combined weight of local fury and their own contradictions (grandiose targets plus tight controls).

Planning localism could deliver new homes...

So what could he do?  Outside his department, he could try to restrict demand by interesting the Home Office in the tough schemes for controlling immigration which he floated in his book, Which Way's Up? (these included a surety deposit for non-EU migrants and no immigrants being eligible for social housing for five years). But while reducing immigration is necessary it wouldn't be sufficient: stopping it altogether wouldn't halt other demographic trends, such as older people living longer in family homes - the knock-on effect of which is demand for new homes among younger people (staggeringly, almost half of all owner occupiers have two or more spare bedrooms).

And within his department, he and Mark Prisk, the new Housing Minister, could fiddle around trying to encourage subletting and bring empty property back on the market, or plunge into the deep waters of 'elf-and-safety, or both.  Or Mr Boles could rest on the deregulation of home extensions, which has the smack of announcing something for the sake of announcing something. More sensibly, he could take up Mr Morton's latest variation on Policy Exchange's policy of localising planning.  Essentially, local people would be balloted on development proposals. No votes would mean No and Yes votes would bring compensation: Section 106 agreements, which spread money widely, would be replaced by payments direct to those affected.

...But here's the rub: not to an electoral timetable

Plans of this kind may ring a bell for Mr Boles, since he was Director of the think-tank in a previous life.  But here's the rub.  Even if Treasury opposition (nerves about compensation amounts; worries about local vetoes) could be mastered and CLG anxieties (planners would run screaming to their councillors who would, in turn, run screaming to Eric Pickles) could be soothed, there is a big, big problem.  Airport runways and nuclear power stations can't be built overnight, and so it is with new homes.  If localist planning and Yes votes took off, developers would calculate that the price of land wasn't a long-term one way bet, and respond accordingly - but that would take time, whatever happened to the availability of mortgage finance in the meantime.

No wonder there are currently almost 480,000 residential buildings in England with planning permission that haven't been built.  Even if the political problems of easing up green belt constraints are for a moment to be discounted, Mr Cameron can't simply get developers to build swiftly by an act of will.  Mr Boles could reasonably tell him that while he has a plan to provide the right long-term planning framework for the country, he has none to deliver short-term housebuilding to an electoral timetable - because it can't be done.  But since dragoons are loyal troopers, the Planning Minister will doubtless adapt the words of that dogged cavalryman at Balaclava: "Never mind, my Lord: I am ready to go again".


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