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.