John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Last Wednesday, South Cambridgeshire District Council comprised 36 Conservatives, 14 Lib Dems, six independents and one from Labour. On Friday afternoon, after boundary changes, it had 30 Lib Dems, 11 Conservatives, two Labour and two Independents. The hammering was very nearly as bad as that in Richmond, where Conservative numbers were reduced from 39 to seven. The Leader, Cllr Peter Topping, retained his seat at Whittlesford, but otherwise the results showed no respect for persons, notably in the planning committee, which lost most of its members.
Heidi Allen, sharing the pain at the count, blamed the strong local pocket of remainers, many of whom work in high tec, medical and pharmaceutical companies. This had hit me as a candidate last year in the county council elections, but had not led to meltdown. This time, as in Trafford, the key issue was planning, and our fate was sealed before the first leaflet was delivered.
Sajid Javid got good press, and praise from our opponents, for his war on Nimbys, a term promulgated by the late Nicholas Ridley, a Nimby himself. The word has become a verbal taser to be used against anyone opposed to any form of development – housing, windfarms, roads, airports, anything – by people whose aim is not to solve the housing crisis, but to build up valuable banks of land and use planning permissions as high-end bitcoins. Their idea of a suitable site is a field without planning permission. Their tools are a computerised map and a barrister who can steamroller the council, and hammer it with costs in a rigged appeal system if it dares to object. £100 million bonuses are the reward. Trafford in the North West was caught in the same trap.
Watching SCDC’s planning committee under these circumstances was an unhappy experience – our Conservative councillors were not concerned with the merits of applications, some of which had been rejected many times over the past 30 years, but with the consequences of an appeal. Whispered discussions when a valid point was raised against proposals – for example, to build on a floodplain – were clearly designed to try to protect the council from the consequences of making a decision that they knew to be the right one. The developers had no scruples, either towards the people who might be duped into buying such houses – see also the leasehold scandal – or towards local communities. One even told a meeting of a parish council’s planning committee that “there could be a cheque involved”. The meeting was immediately terminated, but a councillor who then asked privately for a figure was quoted £200,000.
I would say that it needs to stop, but it doesn’t. The big issue in national politics is defeating Jeremy Corbyn, and a couple of councils don’t matter much in that context. As the Labour leader in South Cambs put it, after doubling his representation to two seats, people think and act differently in general elections.
A more important issue is what kind of development we want, and what kind of society we want. Far from embracing nimbyism, South Cambridgeshire has taken a positive and constructive approach to development. One new town – Cambourne – is established and thriving, with two more, at Waterbeach and North Stowe, in the pipeline. Elsewhere, the district has villages rather than towns, and residents are desperate for hew housing that will meet their needs and prevent their children from having to move out. We need starter homes rather than estates of large detached houses, and a definition of “affordable” based on what people on modest incomes can actually afford, rather than on a high percentage of inflated prices.
We understand Labour ideology, and know what to expect should McDonnell get his hands on our economy and assets. John Prescott required South Cambridgeshire to pay 50 per cent of our rent receipts to central government – £12 million a year – diverting resources to his own backyard, and leaving nothing left for local investment. Our side has its own ideology in extreme neoliberalism, that has left too many young people struggling with debts and inflated rents, and too many slightly older people unable to buy a house. All Conservatives are not neoliberals, and we need to understand that statements about doing the right thing, or reducing consumption of avocado toast, will not provide a solution to real problems.
So I am going to propose an idea that owes more to RA Butler than to Milton Friedman and Nicholas Ridley. We need council houses, operated if necessary through housing associations, both as part of new towns and in sensible, small-scale village developments that will allow young people to save for a deposit, and free older people on lower wages from the harsh realities of the privately rented sector. We can, of course, take the high-risk option, and trust that the balance of interest between our supporters and Corbyn’s will continue in our favour, and that he will lose. It would be more prudent, and more consistent with the principles of conservatism, to take a step back from neoliberalism as the basis of policy, and deal with some of its unintended consequences.