By Paul Goodman
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Mike Jones, the Conservative leader of Cheshire West and Cheshire Council and a senior figure in the Local Government Association, has reason to raise a sceptical eyebrow at how the details of the Government's compromise scheme over home extensions will work. But there's no doubt that Eric Pickles, who has cobbled it all together, has calmed some quivering nerves. Earlier this week, a Tory backbench revolt over CLG's original proposal cut the Government's majority to 27. Zac Goldsmith, one of the rebellion's ringleaders, tells today's Daily Telegraph that the Communities Secretary's approach is sensible: "Crucially it
protects people's right to object, which has always been a red line for me.
I'm pleased the Government has listened to concerns."
Pickles isn't being blamed for the original snarl-up. Indeed, it was his appeal to backbenchers, made from the despatch box itself, that soothed the revolt. The Communities Secretary isn't always an emollient figure, but the former Bradford Council leader is a veteran fixer, and friends tell me that he relished the chance to go to the chamber and quell an upset. He was in a marvellous position to do so because Conservative MPs, rightly or wrongly, don't blame him for the original plans: they point the finger at George Osborne. I wouldn't claim for a moment that Pickles encouraged them to do so, but his CLG team is very cool about some of the Treasury's more fervent schemes for growth.
Nick Boles is widely seen as an exception – as a committed ally of the Treasury – but this is to simplify the position. The Planning Minister has indeed been sent into the valley of death by the Chancellor (as I've put it previously), but he's well aware that this mission puts his political life in danger, and though he believes in the cause – after all, he's backed housing growth since his Policy Exchange days – he isn't at all gung-ho about it. Indeed, he didn't seek to go above Pickles's head and appeal to Osborne over the climbdown, and played his part in trying to head off the backbench uprising. But since he's seen as the Treasury's man, he was far less well placed to do so than wily old Pickles.
This week's news from Fitch is a reminder of how desparate Osborne is for growth, and how apprehensive Ministers can be when the quest for it raises thorny questions about principle and practice. Let me raise just one: if localism means anything, is it right not to allow them local discretion over planning practice on, say, ground floor home extensions? Different people will answer in different ways, but the question is legitimate. My own view is that Osborne is more sinned against than sinning when it comes to clashes with other Ministers over growth – that he's on the right side of the argument over housing, airports, infrastructure and green taxes (though he must take a big share of the blame for ensnaring the party in green excesses in opposition).
Which isn't to say that the Treasury's original plans were correct in this particular case. But the resistance of backbenchers to development on their patches, the ambiguity of the Liberal Democrats (some of whom are pushing More Garden Cities Now), the lateness of part of the Treasury push and the long timetable for building houses conspire against the Chancellor getting big housing growth in the little-more-than-two-year-period between now and the general election. If the present moment was the start of a new Parliament, there's little doubt what Osborne could and perhaps would do: cut the rise of spending further in order to cut taxes further. But we aren't there, and it's hard to see where a big upturn is going to come from.