It’s politics, but not as we know it

People are saying it – our politics are getting stranger all the time.

One of the many attractive features of the Smart Growth philosophy has always been its ability to attract support from thoughtful people across the political spectrum. Now it looks increasingly as if the need to rise beyond the hurly-burly of party politics is getting more urgent.

To read the papers, you might have thought the results of the English local elections were wholly dependent on national issues – Brexit, the state of the economy etc. – and voters’ traditional political allegiances.

Certainly, they loom large in many voters’ minds, but others do vote on local issues and, perhaps increasingly, are moving beyond traditional voting patterns. If you listen beyond the noise, concern about local environmental issues is shining through more strongly than ever.

A glaring example was Plymouth, where anger over the midnight felling of city centre trees saw voters dictate a change of council. Voters were, apparently, drawing trees on their ballot papers.

But there were many other straws in the wind. More than one senior Conservative local leader, for instance, blamed their party’s losses on Government targets for house building and resultant destructive urban sprawl.

One of the biggest upsets of the night was Windsor and Maidenhead Council where Conservatives lost control. Among issues cited by the victorious LibDems was a plan for 1,500 greenfield homes.

One senior Conservative told Politics Home that unhappiness over the issue contributed to their big losses.

In Medway, where Labour won control, a Conservative councillor Robbie Lamass told Kent Online that housing targets had become a clear local issue.

“Michael Gove said he would change the housing target and he hasn’t followed through on it,” he said. “They just tweaked the guidance. The trouble is that short of begging them, we’ve done all we can do.”

Labour reaped its share of the hostility to the car-dependent sprawl surge cranked up by central government in recent years. But if hostility to attacks on planning and long-term promotion of sprawl cost Conservatives votes, it would be ironic if Labour were the beneficiary. In recent weeks it has used Michael Gove’s tentative talk of less environmentally destructive planning policies as a stick to beat the Government.

In a move that is potentially, environmentally disastrous, Labour has recently begun to support the well-organised and mendacious PR campaign claiming young people are clamouring for the Government to abandon planning controls and embrace sprawl on the grand scale.

It’s curious, however, how many of the young people cited either work in the property or development industries or are college students studying for a career in those fields.

So, have the property and house building industries suddenly swung support from Conservative to Labour simply as a result of the decision not to carry through the 2020 planning white paper?

In reality, the BuildBuildBuild lobby has been targeting the Labour Party since at least 2018 when opponents thought it could be out of power for a generation. A fringe meeting at that year’s party conference, sponsored by a house builder, asked the innocent-sounding question of how infrastructure can help deliver housing.

That question (in reality, how road building can deliver low-density, car-dependent market housing) has been central to the whole grand-sprawl offensive. With the £4bn Housing Infrastructure Fund heavily aimed at road building, the answer plainly involved massive public subsidy.

It’s curious, isn’t it, how the freest of free-market advocates of a house building free-for-all have never minded some very un-neoliberal subsidy when it comes their way?

Still, with Jeremy Corbyn at the head of Labour and the Government and HM Treasury comfortably in the hands of unsustainable building, those targeting Labour played a waiting game.

It all changed in 2020. With the planning white paper hitting the buffers, the country in the grip of pandemic and Labour under new management, those targeting Labour began to move. A handful of minor party figures began to organise around its fringe and to target party groupings and organisations.

Their central message was that young people are being denied the right of previous generations to buy their own home by elderly home owners trying to protect the value of, and views from, their owner-occupied homes. That was coupled with a full-scale attack on planning of the kind the more extreme neoliberal elements in Government had been pursuing.

The attack was sustained for two years in fringe meetings, publications, social media etc.. No-one in the Labour hierarchy seemed too concerned that the onslaught was aligned fairly closely with some of the most extreme neoliberal think-tanks who had been attacking planning controls (and their own party) for years.

This year, the expensive and well-organised campaign struck pay-dirt. With a general election this year or next and Labour scenting victory over increasingly embattled opponents, the Party seems desperate to jump on any bandwagon that might deliver votes – especially young people’s.

Now we have a constant barrage of claims there is a “housing crisis” which apparently consists largely of the time it takes more affluent young adults to buy their own homes because, allegedly, the planning system prevents altruistic volume house builders spreading expensive market homes all over undeveloped parts of the country.

Other more acute housing crises like homelessness, however, seldom feature.

This message is honked out by builders and property industry groups, neoliberal think-tanks and a few Labour and Conservative MPs. The Times has recently become its house magazine.

But set this against the current background – a country with a declining economy which needs to import much of its food, the climate change emergency gathering force and the post-war security of Europe now threatened by anti-democratic superpowers and actively under invasion by one of them.

Ask yourselves, is winning a few votes by promoting car-dependent sprawl really such a responsible idea?

Jon Reeds

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