Friday, May 03, 2013

A backlash in the shires

It has been a truly dreadful day for the Coalition with both the Conservatives and Lib Dems suffering significant losses.  Labour has clawed back some support from its nadir in 2009 but the clear winners are UKIP who have demonstrated a national appeal that is lacking among the mainstream parties.

UKIP did well because a) the stakes were low so it was a risk free protest, b) the Lib Dems no longer represent a useful protest vote and c) all three main parties have lost the trust of voters.  They are now in a position to go on to win the popular vote at next year's European elections and shake the political establishment to its core.

In the short term, UKIP's rise has three big political implications:
  1. It will encourage the three mainstream parties to appease the populist rhetoric of UKIP, although to date, Cameron's pledge of an EU referendum and Miliband's tougher stance on immigration have done little to stem the tide. 
  2. It will increase tensions within the Coalition as right wing Tories use UKIP's popularity to demand concessions from Cameron that are simply unpalatable for the Lib Dems.  Bizarrely, this might suit both coalition partners as it will give each greater freedom to publicly express their 'distinctiveness' from one another but it doesn't make for good Government.  Privately, many business leaders are already complaining about the paralysis at the heart of Government as coalition decision making kicks the more difficult issues into the long grass. 
  3. And, specifically for the development sector, it will increase central-local tensions within the Coalition parties - particularly within the Tories.  There is increasing anger and resentment within Tory ranks about planning reform.  The 'housing delivery' and '5 year land supply' focused NPPF seems a million miles away from the 'let the people decide' idealism of pre-2010 localism.  Nigel Farage picked up on public opposition to development in the campaign (although a bit too late to make a difference) promising referendum on large housing schemes.  UKIP now has an army of Councillors in place to challenge local plans and planning applications, changing the local dynamics of development in the shires.  With UKIP likely to pick up more Councillors over the next year through by-elections and defections, Tory Councillors will put more pressure on Cameron to rein in his pro-development Planning Minister, Nick Boles.
Local elections are generally over analysed by political commentators.  Once the articles have been written, and the TV punditry dries up, politics gets back to normal as the realisation seeps in that they were no more than the voters giving the national party of Government a slap on the cheek.  The question now is whether the UKIP threat will recede or whether yesterday's poll, and the Rise of the Kippers, marks a sea change in British politics.

A couple of years ago, the conventional political wisdom was that the Coalition (and the unpopularity of the Lib Dems) would return Britain to two party politics.  No longer.  The next election is now likely to be a four party affair.  And because of the inequities of the first past the post system, it is even possible that with the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP chasing the centre right/right vote, Labour could secure a comfortable majority with less than 30% of the popular vote. 


Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Cameron’s reshuffle says ‘let’s get Britain building’

According to today's papers, Mr Cameron's first Government reshuffle has shored up his right wing, brought in new talent from the 2010 intake and shaken up departments that need a new policy or communications drive; notably Health, Justice, and Transport.

It also paves the way for a stronger focus on growth.  Cameron has strengthened the Tory influence in Vince Cable’s Business Department with the appointment of Michael Fallon and George Osborne’s former adviser, Matt Hancock.   Fallon is likely to take the construction remit within the Department.

Owen Paterson’s elevation to Environment has dismayed green campaigners who fear it will lead to a relaxation of environmental regulations. Cameron has also appointed Paul Deighton, the CEO of LOCOG, as Treasury minister with responsibility for economic delivery and strategic infrastructure and announced the establishment of a Cabinet Committee to chase progress on deregulation, infrastructure, planning and housing.

Most notably, Cameron has cleared out Justine Greening and Teresa Villiers from the Department for Transport.  Greening and Villiers’ constituency interests not only ruled out a third runway, but would have made it difficult for them to sell a new Thames Estuary airport to the voters of Kent - if the Government plump for a more radical aviation policy.  The arrival of Patrick McLoughlin paves the way for a Government U-turn on aviation, and possibly HS2.

The Lib Dem changes have been more restrained, although the return of David Laws in education with a wider roving brief at the Cabinet Office is another signal that both sides of the Coalition recognise the need to support growth.

A new team at CLG

Outside the top spots of the cabinet, the reshuffle has been extensive - Eric Pickles inherits a completely new team at CLG.

The energetic Grant Shapps is promoted to Conservative Party Chairman and replaced as Housing Minister by the more analytical Mark Prisk.  Shapps is an effective media performer with an impressive record as a ministerial reformer having implemented the New Home Bonus and re-introduced the Right to Buy.  But critics point out that he was more interested in the advice of his spin doctor than his civil servant policy advisers.  Prisk, a former Chartered Surveyor and Construction Minister, has an unenviable in-tray with the lack of mortgage availability and the regulatory costs and on-going uncertainty of planning at the top.

The architect of the planning reforms, Greg Clark, is moved to Treasury where he will retain responsibility for cities.  He is replaced by Nicholas Boles, the MP for Grantham and Stamford, and founder of the Government’s favourite think tank, Policy Exchange.  Policy wonk Boles is the ideal candidate to drive visionary policies such as new garden cities, to which both Cameron and Clegg are converts.

Andrew Stunell is replaced by Don Foster to give the Lib Dems a greater media and public profile in this policy area and to help reassure the party’s local government base, who are growing increasingly anxious about the impact of the Coalition on their local electoral prospects.

Bob Neill’s replacement will be announced later today.

The overwhelming message of this reshuffle is that the Government is focused on delivering growth and that housing and infrastructure is now central to their strategy.

Tomorrow, the Government will announce the content of a new economic development Bill which they hope to fast-track into law by October.  It will offer further planning de-regulation (with changes to planning appeals and judicial reviews) as well as more Government support for infrastructure and house-building.

It is an opportune time for property companies to engage Government.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Boris win dents Labour recovery

Boris Johnson has been re-elected Mayor of London.

It's a remarkable achievement, given his Party's poll ratings and the fact that Labour out polled the Conservatives 41% to 32% in the GLA assembly vote.  Boris is a winner, an electoral asset and vastly more popular than his Party; characteristics that are no longer associated with David Cameron.

But what does a Boris victory mean?  For London, it means more of the same.  Why would he jettison his winning formula?  Despite the claims of some that Boris represents a more right-wing or authentic Conservatism, the reality is that he has governed as a moderate, pragmatic Tory.  Surrounded by a competent team of experienced advisers such as Edward Lister, and Simon Milton before him, the Boris machine has been risk adverse and made few mistakes.  There are rumours that he will now lose his respected PR adviser, Guto Harri, which will be a blow.

His victory will have a bigger impact on the the national political scene and the future direction of the Conservative Party.  Many Tory MPs now expect Boris to return to Parliament at the 2015 election, despite Boris ruling this out.  Boris is now a favourite to succeed Cameron.

The fact that people are even contemplating a local government figure as the next Prime Minister is the greatest endorsement of the mayoral model.  It is therefore disappointing that the majority of England's provincial cities rejected the mayoral system on the same day.

Outside London, Labour made major gains at the expense of both the Tories and Lib Dems.  This is part of the inevitable trend as voters use local elections to punish the Government of the day.  Over the course of the Coalition, Labour will become the dominant party in local government.  Independent and fringe parties also polled well.

The results will put more pressure on Cameron and Clegg.  Over the last 24 hours, maverick Tory and Lib Dem politicians have hit the TV studios demanding their leaders are more robust in coalition negotiations.  In fact, the Coalition parties didn't do that badly - Labour's poll rating on Thursday didn't even hit the figures achieved by Neil Kinnock, let alone Tony Blair.

Ed Miliband may have won the better newspaper headlines this weekend, but Labour are still a long way from a return to Government.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Government publish new planning framework

The long-awaited National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is published today.  Although there have been some significant concessions to countryside campaigners, ministers are still claiming that its policy is ‘unashamedly pro-growth’.

The Government should also be congratulated for replacing 1,000 pages of ‘impenetrable jargon’ with a concise and readable document that is comprehensible to the general public.  Let’s hope local councils follow suit when preparing their local plans.

The NPPF will not lead to a development free for all – it was never going to.  But it should prevent local authorities retreating to the automatic ‘planning says no’ nimbyism that the localism agenda threatened to usher in. 

Over the last two years, many Councils have ripped up their development plans and reduced housing targets.  No more.  The NPPF will still allow Councils to turn down developments they do not want, but to do so they will need a credible local plan that allows for an adequate amount of alternative development sites to come forward to support economic growth.

Although the introduction of the NPPF has been broadly welcomed by the property industry, there remain a number of uncertainties in how planning will evolve over the coming years.  Some of the key factors will be:

Political interpretation – how will the Secretary of State use the new framework in his judgements on future planning appeals? 

Legal interpretation – the brevity of the new regime is also a weakness, and will open up future planning decisions to legal challenge. 

Loopholes – all new policies create unintended consequences that the entrepreneurial can exploit.  The NPPF will be no different.

Policy creep – The wholesale review of the planning policy has generated a concise and relatively consistent policy framework.  The problem now is that future Secretaries of State will go back to amending it on a piecemeal basis.

Public opinion – the Government has emphasised that it wants public support to play an increasing role in planning decisions but how will this be reconciled on schemes which are policy compliant but bitterly opposed by local people?

Political change – It will take a few years for the new regime to settle down, by which time there will probably be a new Secretary of State and possibly a change of administration.  How long will this current regime last before there are demands for further planning reform?

Key announcements

The NPPF was presented to Parliament by Planning Minister, Greg Clark MP.  A copy of the NPPF can be found here.  Some of the key features in today’s announcment include:

The NPPF retains a presumption in favour of sustainable development but the assumption that the default answer to a development proposal is "yes", except where this would compromise key sustainable development principles, has been removed.

Transitional arrangements – Local authorities with a post-2004 local plan that is broadly in line with the NPPF will be able to use those policies for 12 months. For local authorities with no up to date plan, the NPPF will come in to force today.

The definition of sustainable development has been strengthened.

The Brownfield first policy has been strengthened to prioritise more clearly the use of previously developed land.

Five-year land supply – Local Authorities with a good track record at allocating land for housing must earmark a five-year supply plus 5%.  Others must earmark a five-year supply plus 20%

The intrinsic value of countryside has been included in the NPPF following its removal from the first draft.

The town centre first policy has been strengthened.

There is support for Garden Cities - so urban extensions and new settlements are back on the agenda.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Britain’s real planning scandal

Figures released today in HBF’s latest Housing Pipeline report reveal that approvals for just 32,900 homes across England were granted in Q3 of this year, a 10% decrease on the same period last year. This number is half that required to build the homes needed to meet demand – and half the permissions granted each quarter in 2006 and 2007.

These shocking statistics come on the same day that the media are reporting the awful experiences for those suffering homelessness at Christmas and a report from a Select Committee of MPs saying that the Government’s planning reforms are too biased in favour of developers at the expense of the environment.

The MPs biggest gripe appears to be the default ‘Yes’ that is built into the proposed National Planning Policy Framework.  What they have failed to miss is that if a local authority adopts a local plan, there is no presumption in favour of development – the local plan takes precedent. 

The local plan led system is the essence of localism.  Local councils have been required to maintain an up to date local plan since 2004.  However, eight years on, two-thirds still have no such plan in place.  Why is this?

Local plans require local councils to undertake housing assessment studies to identify what housing demand and housing need is expected over the plan period.  Once they have done that, they have to allocate a credible amount of land to meet those housing requirements.  The reality is that many Council’s do not want to face up to this challenge.  They don’t want to make the difficult decisions about where we build the homes of the future.

If there is no local plan in place, councils can throw out major planning applications on the grounds that they are ‘premature’, i.e that the applications must come after the local plan.  If the local plan does not come forward, nor can those planning applications.  It is a loophole NIMBY councils have exploited time and time again to throw out legitimate plans for development.

The consequence of this action has been a substantial fall in planning approvals, as reported by the HBF.  It is time the Government put a stop to it and this is exactly what the National Planning Policy Framework will do.  Those councils that do not adopt a plan will find the presumption in favour kicking in.  My guess is that at that moment, councils will stop dragging their heels and start working on their local plans.

The Localism agenda gives huge powers to local councils.  The NPPF will ensure that they use those powers responsibility.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Having it two ways with Housing

The Government’s Housing Strategy announced yesterday is an example of Coalition policy making at its best and its worst.  Its presentation was also a welcome improvement from a Government that has lost its way in media management in recent months - Cameron and Clegg speaking as one, supported by an articulate spokesman in Grant Shapps who spent the day touring the TV studios and rebutting his critics on the Blogosphere and Twitter.

The mortgage indemnity scheme is a nod to Tory champions of home ownership, while the bung to do up empty homes has long been a Lib Dem priority.  Lib Dems can point to land auctions which have been developed by their CentreForum think tank; Tories to the FirstBuy scheme which helps First-Time Buyers onto the property ladder.  The Tory policy to extend the Right to Buy has been tempered by a Lib Dem sensitivity to spend the receipts on building new social homes.   In doing so, the Coalition has framed a radical, comprehensive and innovative set of policies to promote housing and housing growth.  

The most welcome aspect of yesterday’s announcement is the realisation by both Tory and Lib Dem leaders of the central importance of the housing market to the wider economy.  As with every recession since the 1930’s, it might have been a Housing Bust that got us into this mess, but it will be a Housing Boom that will get ‘Britain back to work’.  When people feel good about the money in their home, they are generally quite happy to spend on holidays, new kitchens and other consumer durables.

The plan to underwrite mortgages comes straight out of Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The beauty of that initiative was that it enabled the Federal Government to subsidise lower mortgages at no cost to the taxpayer (so long as things didn’t go wrong.)  It helped trigger a housing boom that became American suburbia.  But it was also the first in a series of events that would ultimately lead to the sub-prime catastrophe.  The scheme proposed by the Coalition might be a short term mechanism to stimulate housing demand, but it is not a solution to the real problem which is a chronic under supply of new housing.

And it is here, on the supply side reforms, where the proposals look weak and confused trying to appease both its localism rhetoric and the economic reality.  The Government say they want to promote “a wave of larger-scale projects…. where there is clear local support and private sector appetite".  The problem is where are these sites?  Where communities want more housing development, there are no investors; and where builders want to build, there is normally an army of NIMBY objectors.  By trying to have it both ways, there is a danger that the Coalition will end up pleasing no one and delivering nothing.  Ultimately, the Government might have to decide whether it is on the side of the Parish Councillor or the First Time Buyer.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mobilising the silent majority

Forty Shillings recently hosted a breakfast seminar with Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners (NLP) and Com Res on how developers can mobilise the silent majority on major planning applications.

At the seminar, we revealed some opinion research that had been carried out by ComRes exclusively for this event.  The research showed that:

  • 75% of Councillors believe that the silent majority is overlooked in planning decisions
  • 82% of Councillors believe consultation only capture the views of the most vocal people
  • 64% believe there is a lack of robust evidence of public opinion
  • 46% are likely to more swayed by the opinions of local constituents than national or local planning policy
  • 52% believe the National Planning Policy Framework means local authorities will have less say in local planning decisions
  • 46% believe the National Planning Policy Framework will be adopted similar to its current form.
In the age of localism, developers need to stop treating consultation as a tick boxing exercise or a fluffy extra, but as an essential part of building public support through the planning process. 

A report of the seminar, including the ComRes findings is available at 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Delivering regeneration

Founding Director of Forty Shillings, Wyn Evans, will be speaking on strategies for engagement and localism at RTPI’s Regeneration Conference on 8 December 2011.  More information is available here.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Guest Blog: The political response to the riots

Jayant Chavda

The year is 1985, and a teenager of Indian origin pesters his parents for over six months to allow him to buy a pair of the latest Adidas trainers with money earned from a paper round to maintain street credibility amongst his classmates at Alperton High School in North West London. Fast forward to 2011, and the person in question eagerly looks forward to receiving a new smartphone even though in technological terms he has only just left the eighties by recently discarding his use of the Sony Walkman. And the moral of this introduction ? Even pretentious, "educated" gits such as yours truly, who affect to rise above the depredations of capitalism, cannot escape the allure of materialism.

So it is any wonder that a minority of the public, who for years have been led to believe by the political and media establishment that the sole purpose in life is to earn and own, took advantage of the opportunities during the urban riots last month to help themselves to a flat screen LCD television or two ? The Prime Minister had no truck with any reflection and analysis of the events. For him, it was "criminality, pure and simple." And this coming from a man who was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford, which regularly trashed restaurants in the city.

Leaving aside Dave's utter hypocrisy, it is easy to see why he wanted to avoid any detailed examination of why people would wish to riot and loot knowing full well that they were highly likely to be caught on camera and subsequently prosecuted. For he would have to account for the disastrous consequences of his economic strategy with severe cuts in public spending affecting youth services and educational maintenance allowances.

He would have to account for why his government has no jobs programme for young people when there are nearly a million of them out of work (20 per cent of the labour force). And he would have to account for the fact that net economic growth in the last nine months has been a pathetic 0.2 per cent despite George Osborne's absurd belief that austerity measures have restored confidence in the UK economy.

Instead of serious thought, Mr Cameron has given us soundbites ("some parts of society are not just broken, but frankly sick"), gimmicks (taking away benefits from those involved in the riots), and red herrings (health and safety laws and the Human Rights Act were to blame for the riots). I am ashamed to share the same alma mater as this balsa wood of a politician.

Thankfully, the Leader of the Opposition took a much more calm and considered approach in his response to the events, and went beyond the easy, populist condemnation of the Prime Minister. In a speech at his old school, Haverstock Comprehensive, on 15th August, Ed Miliband said:

"The politician's instinct, reach for new legislation, appoint a new adviser, wheel out your old prejudices, will not meet the public's demand for real answers and deep rooted, lasting solutions.

"… Why are there people who think it's okay to loot, vandalise and terrorise their own neighbourhoods ? Who seem to owe no loyalty to their communities ? Who think they have everything to gain and nothing to lose from doing this ? The small minority who did this are not one race, one community, one age group. They are British people from Brixton to Gloucester, Croydon to Manchester.

"And to answer what has happened, we have to state the most inconvenient truth of all: yes, people are responsible for their actions. But we all bear a share of responsibility for the society we create. Governments, Labour and Conservative. Powerful elites in politics, business and the media. And all of us - me and you as well."

Mr Miliband was right to call for a public inquiry on the riots in his speech (which the Government eventually agreed to undertake), and he was especially right in re-iterating his call for greater responsibility at the top of society, reminding everyone of the "greedy, selfish and immoral" behaviour of bankers, MPs, and newspapers which hacked phones – "We hear lots of talk now about role models for communities, but what role model has been provided by the elites of our society ?"

The Leader of the Opposition also acknowledged New Labour's failures but did not mention the biggest, which was its inability to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, the fundamental reason Britain remains a deeply divided and unfair society. The likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were only to happy to suck up to the wealthy and powerful, whilst their colleagues (particularly David Blunkett and Dr John Reid) were only too happy to suck up to the right-wing press with "tough" rhetoric on law and order. It was a ghastly era, which Ed Miliband firmly wants to leave behind.

The riots exposed a number of things: the savagely unequal nature of Britain, which has led to widespread alienation; the lack of job opportunities for young people across the country; the rottenness of our political and media establishment with their lazy calls for water cannons and punitive sanctions against the rioters; and the utter inadequacy of our beloved prime minister.

The Leader of the Opposition may not have yet resonated with the public and he may have not have found the correct solutions to the current crisis, which is at its heart a crisis of capitalism, but he is at least asking the right questions. He needs to continue challenging the conventional wisdom in a constructive way, and develop a genuine alternative to neo-liberalism which is now a well and truly busted political model.

Jayant Chavda is a freelance political consultant and a former Labour Party researcher.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In defence of the National Planning Policy Framework

Middle England is in revolt and the issue that is attracting their fury is planning.  Or more precisely, the Government’s proposed new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and its presumption in favour of sustainable development. 

The Editor of Country Life, Clive Aslet, claims that “the object (of the NPPF) is to let development rip through those parts of Britain that aren’t formally protected as National Parks or part of the Green Belt. This is most of what us still regard as our green and pleasant land – ‘all fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes’, as George Eliot put it.”

Shaun Spiers from CPRE adds, that “the presumption in favour of development is clearly about development, not sustainability. The message for local authorities is ‘build, build, build.’”

Government Ministers appear to be at war with the countryside’s leading advocates.  The complaints from groups such as the National Trust and CPRE, hitherto seen as part of the true blue brigade, are dismissed by Ministers as “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups."

The Countryside Alliance’s Dylan Sharpe, says “It's time to call an armistice and for all parties to get back round the table.”

It’s funny, they weren’t calling for that when the Government ripped up the regional strategies and introduced localism.  Some 220,000 homes that were planned under the previous Government, have now been scrapped as a consequence of the abolition of the regional plans.

The reality is that no local authority that puts in place a local plan has anything to fear by the NPPF and the presumption in favour of sustainable development.  What the Government are trying to do is prevent a repeat of the 2004 Planning Act.  Between 2004 and 2010, despite requirements to do so, just 13% of councils put in place a local plan.  If you believe in localism and a plan led system, it requires a local authority to have a plan.  You can’t allow them to drag their heels in the hope that difficult decisions will go away.

Aslet is wrong when he says that “a carefully evolved system of checks and balances has been junked in favour of a presumption that big development will get its way.”  The NPPF is an attempt to ensure that a system of checks and balances remains in place under localism, and that councils face up to their new responsibilities. 

In opposition, the Conservatives always said they wanted more development and to build more homes.  They argued that the problem with the top-down regional strategies was that it built the wrong homes in the wrong places, where they were not wanted.  Their solution was localism.

There are legitimate debates to be had about whether we concrete over greenfields or whether we cram more people into our built up areas; whether we create sustainable new settlements or whether we disperse development over wider areas.  Under localism, it will be for local communities and their community leaders to grapple with these issues and policy dilemmas. 

This could result in a loss of greenfields in certain areas, but that is only because those communities have decided that is a more desirable outcome than cramming people into high rise, small boxes in our town centres.  

The rural countryside lobby is quite happy to take the bits of localism that empowers people to say no, but they don’t want councils to face up to the responsibility that goes along with having these new localist powers.  The NPPF does just that.

Ministers, stick to your guns.