So now we know the key themes of the next election. The Conservative Party have taken the gloves off and gone all out for an attack on green policies. They are aiming to frighten consumers into believing that unless they elect Rishi Sunak their cost of living will be driven through the roof and their lifestyles will be hugely inconvenienced by silly policies like seven rubbish bins.
It may work. Provided people can be made to forget that it was the Conservatives who drove interest rates through the roof and are inflicting punishingly hard reductions in the real standard of living of huge numbers of ordinary working people. Just ask someone with a mortgage. Or paying rent.
Oh, and the Conservatives also need to convince us all that wild fluctuations in our weather that trigger increases in fires, floods and high winds are no problem. Or that having clean air in our cities is horrible. Or that being asked to add an electric motor to fossil fuel cars in 2030 was an over-ambitious target.
Labour’s pledge: build – at all costs
The Labour Party have also now taken the gloves off and gone for a strategy of growth above all else. No elected local planning committee will be allowed to stand in the way of development because Britain needs to get building again and Labour will lead the charge.
This has the merit of being a clear and easily understood message. “Growth, growth, growth!” is Keir Starmer’s version of Tony Blair’s “education, education, education!”. Anyone on the doorstep can grasp that concept and it should be easy to sell the electorate on the advantages of 1,500,000 new homes delivered with the help of a network of new towns.
Whether it has the merit of being a policy that can be successfully delivered and what the consequences will be is a rather more open question.
What’s needed often isn’t what gets built
At this point I need to declare an interest. I sit on two planning committees in North Yorkshire and, horror of horrors, I have on occasion voted against new housing schemes. I happen to think that having people with local knowledge forming judgements about where housing goes in their local community is a lot better than central government telling developers that they can forge ahead and build in the green belt.
Developers don’t always have the best interests of the community at heart. A remarkable number of them are more interested in building what is profitable than what is needed and it is therefore rather important that there are strong controls over what they build and where.
In many parts of Yorkshire there are huge areas of old housing stock that is crumbling into neglect whilst the areas around it reek of deprivation. Walk the back streets of Keighley or explore the Parson’s Cross estate in Sheffield if you are in any doubt. Few developers see a profit in repairing or rebuilding these areas.
On the green field sites on the edge of our towns and cities land is cheap to develop and is much preferred by developers. Which might be fine if they were building what the local community needs. All too often they are building four and five-bedroom executive homes and pulling every trick in the book to reduce the number of supposedly affordable homes that they construct as part of the project.
Places like Silsden on the edge of Bradford have been more than doubled in size in a few short years whilst good quality agricultural land has been lost.
Developers hold all the cards
Developers are well funded and use good lawyers and expert planners. They make sufficient profits to be able to donate to political parties and they employ experts in lobbying. Those lobbyists met with Labour a few weeks back and have clearly been successful in influencing its policy.
Planning law is already heavily stacked against the ordinary citizen and in favour of large developers. If a developer submits a planning application and it goes through there is no right of appeal for any citizen that opposed it. That is that and it gets built. If their application is rejected, the developer can appeal. Unless the rejection is in strict accordance with national policies and local policies the appeal will win and costs can be awarded to the developer. Developers don’t pay legal costs when they lose. Even if the developer loses, all they need to do is to alter the scheme and they can resubmit. As many times as they like.
Protecting the green belt
Many people from many communities who have experience of genuinely inappropriate development being forced through are not convinced that weakening planning laws is the best way to get the right development in the right place. It isn’t just blind NIMBY protestors who have concerns when large areas of agricultural land in the green belt are used to build properties that have little or no impact on genuine local housing need.
The average house price across North Yorkshire is £284,000. The average income is £28,448. At those prices it makes little impact when new homes are built that sell to people retiring from London. Even supposedly affordable homes are often out of the price range of locals.
Before we rush to assume that the answer to a housing shortage is always to build more we need to look hard and long at the opportunity to regenerate. Before we decide that the green belt is just a nuisance, we need to give a lot of thought to what will happen if it is gradually eaten away and we have one big urban sprawl. Before we opt for shiny new towns, we need to give a lot of thought to restoring the old ones.
Now that both of the largest parties have nailed their colours to the mast it is highly unlikely that we will get either to change their minds before the next election. The consequences of electing a Conservative government will be another horrible lurch to the right and a dangerous determination to do as little as possible about the environment.
The consequences of a Starmer government are now emerging. Not all of them are as good as they sound.