Three cheers? Maybe not

I think it was Voltaire who said that the odd thing about the “Holy Roman Empire” was that it was none of those three things.

Much the same could have been said about New Labour’s 2003 “Sustainable Communities Plan” which began an ill-planned demolition of its own work on the urban renaissance and attempts to create sustainable communities.

Much the same could also be said of the Coalition Government’s imposition of a “Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development”, a provision in the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework designed to force local authorities to drive forward local plans to undermine sustainable development and punish them for not releasing for development the greenfield land demanded by land speculators and developers – or even when builders choose not to build.

The continuing retreat by our national politicians from the sustainable planning policies the country urgently needs is a dismal one. Climate change, conflict, economic decline and a host of other problems threaten our future, while urban sprawl and lack of planning both undermine our ability to respond to them. Pretending they’re not threats shouldn’t be an option.

Behind this is a sinister coalition of house builders, developers, neoliberal think-tanks, HM Treasury, landed interests etc.. I didn’t use the word “conspiracy” deliberately. Like all the most successful conspiracies, where their interests lie is so obvious to those involved, they mostly don’t need to conspire.

That our national politicians continue to fall for this is depressing. Michael Gove has a remarkable ability even for a successful politician, to make people believe he favours their own view, even when several contradictory viewpoints are in play. The “country vicar” demeanour he uses when making U-turns sound like delivery of eternal verities is a wondrous thing, however misleading.

The package of measures he announced today is a complex one which will need careful analysis, but too much of it is part of the current attack on planning.

So when Mr Gove promises to put “rocket boosters under brownfield regeneration projects”, something that ought to be a cause for major celebration, we need to treat it very cautiously.

The reason developers prefer greenfield sites to brownfield is not because planning is an obstacle. It’s because it’s cheaper to develop greenfield sites, because the developments, residential particularly, command higher profit margins and because the planning system has been distorted to encourage them.

So, looking at the package of measures announced today, most are simply designed to weaken the planning system, rather than strengthening it to block the big holes blown in it by 20 years of Treasury-led bombing. They may result in an increase in shoddy development – the “slums of tomorrow” – but have we learned nothing from the shoddy developments of the 1960s?

Just look at some of the proposals;-

  • Changing application of the destructive “housing delivery test” in the 20 towns and cities where the standard method uplift applies to apply the even more destructive “presumption in favour of sustainable development” when the HDT score falls below 95%, giving a free-for-all on brownfield land
  • Changing national policy so “significant weight is given to “delivering” (whatever that means) as many homes as possible by a “flexible approach”, rather than agreeing the right number of homes on sites – ultra-high densities can be as unsustainable as ultra-low.

If anyone needed convincing this is an extension of previous disastrous policies, London Plan lead reviewer Christopher Katkowski KC provided it in a quote for the DLUHC press release.

“The inspiration for the brownfield presumption came from the NPPF in the first place and so it is good to see the idea being brought back to its roots as an additional lever to encourage the delivery of new homes,” he said.

“Inspiration” is not the word I would have used.

And as if previous widening of permitted development rights hadn’t produced enough dysfunctional buildings and sucked potential regeneration out of enough town centres, there’s more:-

  • Even larger upward development and backyard garden shed homes.
  • Wider demolish and rebuild freedoms to allow larger building footprints.

The Government seems to have been spooked by Labour’s capitulation to the Yimby lobby and its long campaign via right-wing media and social media to smash up planning and enrich the whole development sector.

But even if it does produce a few more homes, there’s nothing to be gained by creating massive problems for the future. The real victims of all of this are the environment and local democracy. The urgent need is social-rent housing, but this is aimed at getting the market sector to build more, which it may well not do.

It really is time a genuine housing delivery test stripped developers of the right to develop when they game the system,

We need to take a long view and look at what ministers have said about brownfield development, urban regeneration and “garden grabbing” over the past 30 years.

If there are any historians left in the UK a few decades hence, a useful subject for research would be the shadowy campaign to undermine sustainable development and promote housing sprawl by the actors I identify. Though successful in meeting its own commercial objectives, the dismal results will be evident for all to see.

Jon Reeds