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The End of Sustainable Development?

I’ve always been fascinated by the political process.

This is how it seems to work. Someone with no particular qualifications joins a political party and works enthusiastically at making friends by campaigning in no hope seats. Gets selected for safe seat and enters Government. Their grasp of economics is usually somewhere below schoolboy level.

When faced with housing as an issue their view often appears to be: ‘Houses are expensive. The more we build the cheaper they will be. So we should build them wherever we can. The fact that we aren’t building enough houses is because of the planning system.’

These sophisticated views are reinforced at every turn by well resourced commercial vested interests.

The result: a decision to allow, indeed encourage, the building of anything anywhere.

There’s no political bias in this. With the possible exception of John Gummer and Michael Heseltine this story has been followed pretty consistently during my career. Gordon Brown got Kate Barker to make up some excuses for his house building plans but since then even policy based evidence making seems to have gone out of fashion.

Some will argue that policy making is much more sophisticated than this. Others will say that building anything anywhere was always what the Conservative part of the ConDem coalition intended. Indeed John Howells a year ago was opining that the incentive for communities to make neighbourhood plans was that if they didn’t developers would be allowed to build whatever they wanted (which is what this week’s definition of sustainable development, as part of the new planning presumption in favour of sustainable development, clearly spells out). Mind you at the time he was also suggesting that the country would have 100% neighbourhood plan coverage within two years so perhaps what we are seeing is more cock up (guided by the development industry interests) than conspiracy.

The choice between cock up and conspiracy is hotly debated. Greg Clark made an extremely elegant and inspiring speech to the RTPI this week on the importance of planning. And then the very next day the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, together with the claim to be the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ (not a particularly high bar as has been observed before), get thrown on the scrap heap to be replaced by a rewriting of the meaning of the word sustainable (development will be allowed unless it causes significant provable damage in excess of the benefits and social progress is defined as building more homes). We will need to see the National Planning Policy Framework though to ascertain the full extent of the damage.

The underlying political narrative of all of this is that markets must be free (more schoolboy economics). The Big Society and Localism just aren’t featuring except perhaps as cover for these unalloyed free market policies. The possibility that the planning system might be there to correct market failures (negative externalities in the economic jargon or in plain English stopping factories polluting homes and other quaint, but admittedly somewhat dated now, ideas) is either ignored or countered with the charge that government failure (governments getting regulation wrong – a real issue) is the bigger risk.

Into this mix this week the fringe campaign group, the 250 New Towns Club, which has taken up the TCPA and HBF baton to revive the campaign for eco-towns (but without the eco) was featured again on You and Yours on Radio 4 (28 minutes in). Hugh Pearman attempted a defence on sustainability grounds but the new towns argument had a strong climate change denial tinge. What Hugh struggled with was the economics. The ignorance of the economic arguments was frightening despite Martha Kearney’s attempts to unpick them.

These advocates of new towns on greenfield sites (Essex was mentioned) felt that the new planning system would favour their approach, and they are probably right. These people arrived in Manchester this weekend for a ‘conference’ where they will understand the huge swathes of inner urban housing land that need to be developed before we start on the Green Belt around most of our major cities. I say conference because the speakers and organisers outnumbered the audience of four (which included the BBC producer responsible for the Radio 4 piece and me). It’s astonishing that the BBC give air time to a group of three people (one an HBF employee) who dreamt this idea up in a pub.

So the stage is set for a battle royal between the Government and their property industry supporters on one side and community interests and environmentalists on the other.  And this looks likely to result in a resurgence of Nimbyism. All the good community empowering intentions of the Localism Bill are being bulldozed over by the Tesco Plans amendments and unsustainable definitions and these changes will release the inner Nimby in many voters.

As a student (first year, part time) of politics I wonder what is really happening here. A sophisticated political strategy or a government careering headlong on an out of control rollercoaster of policy making on the fly? With spin as their shield, are they really intent on piling up ammunition for the opposition at the next election or do they think these policies serve their political purpose? Answers on a postcard please…..

And one theory, to start the answers, from some much more intelligent and well connected people than me. The theory goes that Government is so scared that it has overdone the Cuts (due to its need to follow through on the political rhetoric that nearly won it the election) that it is doing anything it can to both appear to be stimulating growth and to actually stimulate growth. It believes a double dip recession would destroy it.


6 Responses

  1. Chris, interesting questions! I am surprised at the apparent lack of understanding and leadership thats being demonstrated here, NiMBYism is a very potent political force, and to trample on it like this is asking for trouble come the next election. Do people care more about their areas than jobs? Where they can afford to they do, i.e. when their jobs are in no danger. So we will see much more development in poorer areas, and less in richer areas. If the effects of growth filter down to these poorer areas then the strategy for reelection might work, but if it doesn’t…and it isn’t likely to before the next election given how long these things take to happen…then I predict that it won’t work.
    Apart from the political implications, the fact that ‘sustainable development’ means ‘any development that meets planning policy’ is bizarre.

    • Who will pay for the development in ‘poorer’ areas?

      My first instinct would be that development interests would be keen to pick off the most marketable sites in areas of outstanding beauty which have strong transport links to centres of highly paid employment.

    • I don’t mind the ‘any development that meets planning policy’ definition – your LDF / Local Plan or whatever should, surely, be a local interpretation of what sustainable development means for the local area/population. Not sure why the change from the presumption in favour of development in accordance with the plan was necessary though as it appears to be no different from the new presumption in favour of sustainable development, other than the fact that it is a slightly catchier slogan that is more likely to be only half understood by NIMBYs / YIMBYs / voters…

  2. The latest economic thinking is that a double dip is on the way. Only a fraction of the overhang of debt from 2007-8 has been paid off and the brief recovery was a reflexive ‘credit impulse’ effect of lower interest rates before an inevitable second downturn (just as we saw in the Great Depression). Professor Steve Keen’s models (he who predicted the crash) are worth seeing. http://www.debtdeflation.com

    Of the 1 1/2 trillion dollar US sub prime crisis we now have a European sovereign debt crisis – 1 1/2 trillion, and a china property bubble and municipal debt crisis 1 1/2 trillion. No wonder they are worried and the panic behind Whitehall closed doors.

    • I think us planners should hold our hands up now and take full responsibility. Clearly my authority’s refusal to grant permission to an out of centre supermarket on a green field site last week is at least part of the reason for this impending financial doom. Or have I been listening to the Government too much?

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