Was this the day that planning was kippered?
It’s now 17 years since chancellor Gordon Brown and deputy prime minister John Prescott were spotted by the press walking and talking in the car park at Loch Fyne restaurant car park in Argyll, after being told the restaurant was full. But it feels politically like a different age.
The two ministers were returning from a memorial service on Iona to mark 10 years since the death of Labour leader John Smith. That the two were deep in conversation was taken, especially in Labour-hating newspapers, to mean the two were reaching agreement to unseat Tony Blair as prime minister and to install Mr Brown instead.
That, of course, is believed to be part of the original Blair-Brown agreement at the infinitely posher Granita restaurant in Islington in 1994; no chance of the rich or famous being told no tables available there. It’s never been publicly confirmed, but it is believed Mr Blair at that time agreed to stand down after two Labour terms in office in favour of Mr Brown.
But I’ve often wondered if there was more to the Loch Fyne meeting.
It’s supposed the Granita agreement gave Mr Brown power over domestic policy even while he was still chancellor, a move which undoubtedly strengthened HM Treasury’s increasingly toxic control of areas of policy it doesn’t understand.
But while Mr Brown plainly did exercise huge control over domestic policy from 1997, there was a massive obstacle in the way of him assuming the full control the Treasury had lusted after for decades.
When Labour came to power, Mr Prescott, as well as being deputy prime minister, was put in charge of a powerful Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. With transport, planning and the environment under one roof and the petrolheads at the transport ministry finally brought under some kind of control, it began to be possible to work towards a more sustainable future, following decades of car-dependent-sprawl.
There was integrated transport policy, attempts to bring the chaotic privatisation of the railways at least under some kind of control and new forms of trunk road assessment which didn’t assume road building was necessarily a Good Thing. The recommendations of the Urban Task Force were taken forward with powerful brownfield-first policies and regional planning became a more powerful force, though plans for elected assemblies went awry.
Inevitably all this attracted some powerful opposition and that included HM Treasury.
2003 saw publication of the first of its Barker reviews, with Dame Kate Barker reviewing the volatility of house prices and asking what could be done about it. She rightly concluded that the ups and downs of the market exacerbate the ups and downs of the British economy, but wrongly concluded that the way to deal with this was to build many more houses. Her review of planning the following year concluded that attack was needed and that’s been pretty much the Treasury’s policy ever since.
By 2004 Mr Prescott had long been seen as the referee in the Blair v Brown fight – Labour’s TB-GBs as one wag called it.
But could it be that the Loch Fyne meeting wasn’t about an instant coup against Mr Blair, but Mr Prescott ceding complete control over domestic policy to Mr Brown? Perhaps to put off a damaging battle?
Tony Blair was actually to enjoy more than three further years at No.10 but, from 2004, Mr Prescott’s power went into steep decline.
His initiatives thereafter went nowhere much. He unsuccessfully opposed Mr Blair’s education reforms and his housing market pathfinder scheme became a complete disaster. His powerful Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions had already lost environment in 2001, becoming the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. In 2002 he had lost transport and his Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was the forerunner of today’s MHCLG. In 2006, he lost his departmental responsibilities altogether and in 2007 resigned as deputy prime minister.
This was accompanied by a fall in the power of his departments and a rise in that of the Treasury. Tony Blair was mostly a spectator domestically by this time and merely acquiesced in the growth in power at HMT.
And the Treasury wasted no time launching its attack on planning, with Prescott’s dying department launching a “Sustainable Communities Plan” which, as Voltaire noted about the Holy Roman Empire, was none of those three things.
The Treasury also launched a secret Barker implementation group and this was supported by a body called the “Number 10 Delivery Unit” which was supposed to prove the prime minister was fully behind the Treasury’s plans.
In fact the Number 10 Delivery Unit was simply an office in the Treasury. Nobody in Whitehall dared call them out.
The Treasury onslaught has continued ever since, supported by departments, with first Eric Pickles in the coalition and now Robert Jenrick enthusiastically going about slaughtering the vital environmental control that planning provides.
It’s unlikely that Mr Brown or Lord Prescott will ever reveal what was said in the car park that day in 2004. But I’ve long suspected that was the day when the environment was finally kippered.