Published:

Robert Jenrick’s decision to ‘call in’ the planning application of a new coal mine in Cumbria has sparked outrage on the Conservative back benches and highlighted the potential for tension between ‘levelling up’ and the green agenda.

But it is also a useful reminder of the extraordinary power wielded by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in our planning system. Not only can Jenrick call in controversial proposals, as he has here, but he is basically the fina court of appeal for planning applications in his department’s jurisdiction.

This gives him a huge amount of personal power when it comes to trying to power through, however imperfectly, the seemingly insuperable barriers successive generations of politicians have thrown up to getting the housing we need built.

How? In the absence of real planning reform, the Secretary of State can adopt a policy of simply granting a higher than normal number of appeals.

Senior Conservatives are aware of this. When asked about the recent setbacks on housing policy, one member of the Government pointed me towards the example of Nicholas Ridley, who as Environment Secretary in the 1980s adopted just such an approach to help drive forward changes to policy on housing and retailing in the teeth of opposition from local authorities, especially in the South of England.

As this piece in The Planner from 2015 points out, his tenure was one of two occasions in modern times when the proportion of successful appeals against planning rejections topped 40 per cent. The other was… 2015, when it approached 50 per cent. It usually sits at around one in three.

Housing policy specialists stress that this is not a good long-term solution. One put it to me thus: “Downside is it makes your government incredibly unpopular in the long run. But if you have the balls it’s a good short term option.” Mark Pennington, in his 1998 thesis, sets out how Ridley’s strategy sparked a concerted backbench campaign:

“However, it is worth recalling that perhaps the defining issue which led to the installation of Chris Patten was Ridley’s proposal to allow the development of new settlements in the home counties and most notably his decision to grant on appeal the proposed development of 4800 houses on a designated SSSI at Foxley Wood – ie. a nimby/urban containment issue. It has been suggested by a number of commentators that the threat of electoral losses reflected in the formation of the 90 strong Conservative back bench pressure group SANE Planning in response to this policy, representing one of the most concerted examples of backbench action on an environmental issue, was a determining factor leading to the appointment of Patten.”

Similar backbench campaigning has already seen the Government forced to abandon its attempt to drive housebuilding in the south via an algorithm. Southern MPs have even tried to co-opt the language of ‘levelling up’ to make a deeply unpersuasive case that what we really need is more housebuilding in the North, where there is no supply problem.

It is not obvious that flooding the local market and potentially pushing its new voters into negative equity would serve the Tory interest – but it might protect southern property prices a while longer.

There is still time for the Government to adopt a more radical approach. We have written before about how they could opt to stuff homeowners’ mouths with gold via Policy Exchange’s new proposal for ‘street votes’, contained in their Strong Suburbs report.

But if Ministers can’t or won’t grasp that nettle, it may be that the last, best hope of hitting the Government’s ambitious housing targets is Jenrick’s pen. If the ‘more homes yes, but not here’ brigade force it to take that path, they may regret it.