Progressive commissions and settlements

With the forthcoming general election still Labour’s to lose, there’s no shortage of advice for the party on what to spend its energy on if and when it wins power.

Leading the pack, of course, is the Yimby Lobby, keen as ever to get planning abolished or, at least, reduced to nothing. Now it’s extending its attack to building control regulations too, anxious to ensure builders get a free hand to do whatever they want.

I was reminded of this by the “Progressive Britain 2024” conference on last Saturday. Progressive Britain is a not-exactly-Labour-Party-but-pretty-near-it sort of organisation and it’s obviously well funded. It supports Rachel Reeves’ “Securonomics”, which aims to get the UK the highest sustained economic growth in the G7 – probably qualifying as the Group’s highest sustained unrealistic ambition in this era of global challenges.

I was, however, interested to read a contribution by CPRE chief executive Roger Mortlock, one of the conference speakers, who pondered how to deliver social housing in the countryside. This should be a key issue for government, but it was dismaying to see the same session including two speakers with prominent Yimby Lobby credentials, including the “head of housing research” at the Yimby Alliance, there to discuss how to deliver the housing they need, sorry, “we need”.

Elsewhere, given that Yimby Lobby speakers have been turning up all over the place to advocate their neoliberal approach to the environment, you might have thought there’s no need of any more thinking on how to smash up England’s planning system “to free up more land for development”. Yet this is the primary stated objective of a “new Commission [capital C of course] tackling England’s housing shortage” which has also been announced.

Exactly who actually “commissioned” the new commission is not immediately clear but, to give it a veneer of official status, Dame Kate Barker will chair it. Yes, that Dame Kate, the one who gave the Treasury her reviews of housing (2004) and planning (2006) which began its long onslaught on planning and gave a veneer of respectability to the previous Labour government when it abandoned its Urban Renaissance and put Whitehall back on the destructive path to low-density, car-dependent, urban sprawl.

The new “RBT Housing Commission” will be run by Radix Big Tent, a registered charity which aims at system renewal, cohesive capitalism, rediscovering community and revitalising liberal democracy. Some pretty exciting aims there, though with the world plunging towards challenges like climate catastrophe, international conflict and food and water insecurity, a slightly less optimistic note might perhaps have found a place in the mix.

The new body will at least be well resourced. It was apparently commissioned by national law firm Shoosmiths, which says its client list “speaks volumes for the quality of our lawyers and the experience they provide”. That list includes clients “from Mercedes-Benz, Octopus Ventures and Travelodge to property developers and some of the UK’s largest banks, we work with a growing number of the FTSE 250 and some of the world’s most exciting and ambitious growth businesses”.

So even though the other three issues the body is supposed to tackle are the important ones of specialist housing, “approaches to sustainability” and affordability, one might be tempted to ask whether serious limits on car-dependent property development and other serious sustainability issues will be among the “Commission’s” recommendations.

Fortunately, there are still some other voices out there. Last weekend saw the launch of “The Hope Farm Settlement”, a six-recommendation statement put together by a group of people from the farming, business, civil society and research sectors calling for whoever wins the next election to begin work on “a bold national food and farming strategy for the UK”.

Its six recommendations are for:

  1. Legally binding targets and policy coherence
  2. Increased public and private funding for farmers to secure transition to sustainable practices
  3. Robust procurement standards and tighter food regulation
  4. A multi-functional land use framework to support local decision making
  5. Fair and consistent standards
  6. Measurement and disclosure frameworks for accountability

Its Recommendation 4 goes some of the way towards what we’ve been recommending for some time – namely a much beefed-up planning system operating at national, regional and local level which co-ordinates much of our activities on land, including how we move around it, and meeting the big threats to our security posed by our increasingly chaotic land-use.

So while climate, health, nature and food resilience -the four issues cited in the Settlement – would certainly feature, we think it needs something stronger wording than that it would “mediate decisions with other sectors (such as housing and energy)”.

Go to any hearing on one of the many rows going on all over the country about whether land should be used for farming, housing, distribution warehouses, solar farms, reservoirs etc., etc., etc.. It’s clear that, given the big threats coming down the line, we’re going to need some tough decision-making powers, taking in a wide range of human activities and threats to our well-being.

But given the neoliberal mind-set which still pervades our governance and economy, it’s going to need some pretty strong courage from politicians. Any sign of that?

Jon Reeds