If you agree that politics is where the interests of the private sphere meets that of the public, then you do not get anything more political than planning. Ask any local councillor and they will agree. It can be as simple as a neighbour’s idea of design conflicting with the conservation zone, or a new town being built where you currently walk the dog. Either way you have two differing opinions, differing needs and no clear right or wrong.
Therefore Caroline Spelman’s recently leaked letter on planning offers us the latest insight into how they will deal with these problems. The letter is just the most recent on how the Conservatives plan to deal with housing. It follows two green papers published earlier in 2009, and we anticipate another later this summer which will give the direction for a Local Government and Housing Bill. What is clear is that the shadow Communities and Local Government team is getting prepared to hit the ground running if they become a Government. So what can we expect?
Conservative policy across the board flows from the concept they define as ‘localism’. The Conservatives have sought to portray Labour’s housing policy as being a top-down imposition of an entirely unrealisable housing target (3 million new housing units by 2020) which is then managed by Regional Development Agencies.
The Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Caroline Spelman MP plans to turn the delivery of housing upside down. In her view it would be a bottom-up rather than a top-down process. Local communities would be free to decide on their own responses to housing needs in their areas. The housing functions of Regional Development Agencies would be scrapped and the national Government would decline from commenting on the number of houses we need as a nation. Local communities will gain greater powers on protecting the green belt and residents will have an increased say before an application is even made by a developer.
Councils will be encouraged to take a two-fold approach to ending, what they agree to be, is the housing crisis. The first is to better utilise the current housing stock, such as relaxing the rules for existing housing to bring houses into use for social housing – thereby lowering the 1.8 million on the social housing waiting list. The second is to encourage new building by allowing local communities to set-up Local Housing Trusts or publishing the Government’s database of surplus land will so the public can identify new sites.
But will this mean more or less development? Up until now local authorities have had to build but they could claim that they were doing so reluctantly because they are forced by the RDA. Now they will have to take full responsibility for their actions. Given that the most vocal in communities are often (but not always) the NIMBYs they could easily be scared off especially in an election year, which is annual in the case of many local authorities.
The Conservatives believe that they can square this circle by offering big enough incentives to councils to build. Councils will be able to get match funding of their council tax for each new house built with special incentives for affordable houses. This should be electorally popular as more money means more services or even lower council tax . Whether this will deliver more development or less is to be seen. But, in theory, it should at least be more popular at least for the local community which most politicians will be happy to take to nullify the politics of planning.