Democracy – and worse

“Democracy is the worst form of government,” said Winston Churchill. “Except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”

Watching the march of dictatorship around the world, one can only echo Churchill’s words. He certainly knew a thing or two about democracy – and the alternatives – but he also understood the necessities of getting elected.

We’re seeing that right now. A general election could still be two years away but, with the Government’s problems seemingly intractable and all the challenges coming down the line, Labour is scenting the smell of ballot boxes.

It’s a heady scent, one which always sends politicians a bit doolally. Unfortunately it tends to leave them reaching for the bottle marked “populist press”, with results that can scar new governments for years.

“Why is the dream of home ownership far more remote now than it was when his party came to power 12 years ago?” Sir Keir Starmer demanded of Rishi Sunak at PMQs yesterday. An interesting academic question – though a genuine answer would have necessitated several hours of Parliamentary time.

But election fever is around. So, would Labour prioritise the acute shortage and disrepair of social housing and the homelessness and despair that results from Whitehall’s long obsession with market homes?

We shall see, but all parties believe their future lies in attracting young, affluent voters,

“The simple fact is this,” growled Sir Keir. “Every year, the age at which people can buy their first home goes up. At this rate, under this Government, a child born in the UK today would not be able to buy their first home until they were 45. I love my kids, but I do not want to be cooking them dinner in 30 years’ time.”

Whether Sir Keir will be cooking his children’s dinner when he’s 90 is open to question. But one of the drawbacks with elective democracy is politicians’ need to join bandwagons*.

This one has been accelerated by the Conservatives’ declining fortunes, prompting the Yimby lobby to shift much of its efforts to Labour. Some minor party apparatchiks have even become involved in the lobbying.

But now the build-build-build lobby sees a big threat. A growing band of Conservative backbenchers has belatedly recognised their party’s demolition of sustainable planning has done untold damage to our environment, yet has failed to generate the fantasy numbers of market homes promised. They’ve laid down amendments to the levelling up bill which would put an end to the ludicrous targets Whitehall imposes on local planning authorities.

The targets don’t actually result in houses built. What they achieve is release of much more of the unsuitable and ill-located greenfield land builders find most profitable and reducing the use of brownfield.

Still, it’s an ill-wind; most of the volume house builders have made colossal profits, helped by multi-billion-pound subsidies like Help to Buy and the Housing Infrastructure Fund.

Yet there’s more to all of this than electoral politics. None of England’s three main parties has anything to be proud of vis à vis the planning system over the past 20 years.

New Labour’s early years were marked by an urban renaissance and a transport white paper which were years ahead of their time in plotting a genuinely sustainable future for our land.

But the Treasury looked on in horror. From 2002 it launched reviews promoting the illusion that building fantasy numbers of new market homes would – single-handedly – iron out the endless boom-and-bust in the UK economy. As Gordon Brown’s star ascended and John Prescott’s fell, the Treasury was able to reassert its control over domestic politics and a long process of eroding England’s planning system got underway.

When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power in 2010, the process was accelerated. Its biggest success was imposition of the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012 which finally ended brownfield-first and created a whole range of mechanisms for big developers to get the land they wanted and stuff the environment.

So, despite the back-benchers’ revolt, will we still sustain the unsustainable? Are there no MPs from other parties with enough gumption to make this an all-party movement?

Or are we doomed to sustain the worst aspects of electoral democracy and ignore the opportunities it uniquely allows?

Jon Reeds

*[The interview with Labour’s Lisa Nandy in the i newspaper is, however, much more balanced]