A glance at this morning’s newslinks is enough to show that now the election and conference seasons are over, the less glamorous work of getting on with governing is underway. From exam standards to NHS directives, ministers are grappling with the practicalities – ditching the proverbial poetry in favour of prose.
A notable example of this protracted wrestling match is Brandon Lewis’ latest push to encourage more house-building, reported in the Telegraph:
‘Tens of thousands of new homes in greenfield areas in England will be given automatic planning permission amid fears that communities will have inappropriate developments forced on them.
Ministers have quietly given developers the right to be granted “planning in principle” in areas that are earmarked for new housing schemes.’
In essence, it’s an extension of the local and neighbourhood plans scheme – areas designated for housing by councils in those documents will gain the beefed up status of “planning in principle”, which is stronger than the existing “presumption in favour” for applications deemed to provide sustainable development (itself an extremely loose term, on which many planning cases rest).
That means the councils’ powers in such cases will be limited to the how – design, scale, transport and so on – rather than the question of whether they should be approved.
For a government which is in favour of more house-building, it’s a simple enough step. After all, the areas affected by such a rule will be selected by local authorities themselves.
But here is the precise point of difficulty which characterises this phase of the parliament: the detail of what government needs to do to meet its promises collides with what voters object to on the ground.
Nowhere is this more vexed than in house-building. Almost everyone wants more, but almost no-one wants any near them. Often even the inhabitants of relatively new houses will join forces with those who opposed their own house being built to oppose new homes in their area for anyone else.
The issue is further complicated by the confused terminology. Greenbelt land often isn’t actually green. Greenfield land – as in this instance – is totally different from greenbelt. Thus is an emotive issue made even more so.
In practice, anger at ministers’ decisions are taken out on local councillors. Last week in Wealden a Lib Dem candidate secured a surprising 35 per cent increase in his vote to win back a seat he lost in May. He put his success squarely down to appealing to local concern about planned house-building. That’s just one by-election, but there will be plenty of Conservative councillors watching with concern as to whether others follow a similar course.
Amid such tensions, some of the new housing we need may get through. But eventually the national drive will get bogged down in a thousand local disputes. As the ConHome manifesto argued, the only solution is a system that brings local residents in on the process, and seeks their consent.