Bill Jamieson: Tories loosen green belt at their peril
David Cameron’s plans to relax house building rules could cost his party dear with voters, writes Bill Jamieson
It WAS a reshuffle, we are told, “intended to tip the balance of the coalition towards traditional Conservative values”. But that prompts a troubling question for David Cameron: what are these values? He may come to find they are the opposite of those his reshuffle sought to promote.
The removal of Justine Greening from her post as Transport Secretary takes away the keenest Cabinet critic of plans to develop a third runway at Heathrow airport. Bearing in mind the context of this change – the Prime Minister’s evident frustration over the planning system and getting any infrastructure project of significance under way – her departure from the post is piquant. Since the Conservatives pledged at the election they would not develop a third Heathrow runway, it could fairly be said that she is the only Cabinet minister fired for sticking to party policy.
It is not just the issue of a third runway at Heathrow that divides Conservative opinion. There has been the furious opposition to the route of the proposed high-speed rail project. There is also deep unease, particularly in the Conservative heartland of the south-east of England, over plans to “streamline” the planning system to allow for housing development in the previously sacrosanct green belt.
There is nothing in “traditional” Conservative values that could be said to favour a new runway at Heathrow, or the high-speed rail route, or wind turbines across the countryside, or the intrusion into what has long been regarded as a vital line of defence against the relentless suburbanisation of the countryside.
And this issue has resonance in Scotland, where there has been a powerful body of opinion that holds our natural heritage dear, that challenges the encroachment of wind farms, that opposes ever more housing sprawl, that is deeply questioning of new development, particularly in the heart of our cities, and which takes exception to the dictates of central planning.
The Prime Minister well knows that “traditional Conservative values” are in fact based on a bias towards localism, distrust of centralism, and a determination to protect and preserve as much as possible of the English countryside and a traditional way of life. We are not Korea, where the environment counts for little. And we are not France, where central government is able to dictate at will where roads and railway tracks will run. If Mr Cameron thinks he has solved the problem of resistance to Heathrow expansion and other infrastructure projects that encroach on the countryside by “easing up” the planning regime, he is set for a rude awakening. Local resistance will be intense, and may cost him dear politically when previously safe Conservative seats in the south-east come under challenge.
All this, of course, can be easily dismissed as Nimbyism – folk seeking to preserve what they have against the encroachment of the new. In this respect we’re all Nimbys, or Nimbys in the making: today’s aspirant home builder is tomorrow’s passionate defender of the status quo against further intrusion. The more salient issue, surely, is whether it is the planning system that is at fault or whether there are other pressures that are causing the government problems. And where there are continuing problems with planning and the demands for growth, what incentives could be offered, both to developers in opting for a brownfield site over a green one, and to local communities to help overcome objections?
Why is there such intensifying pressure to build in the green belt? Here the government may be reaping its own whirlwind, particularly in the south-east of England. Population pressures are intense. Some 63 million people now live in the UK, up by 4.3 million since 2001. Here in Scotland, the population has risen to an all-time high, largely due to immigration. Last year alone, 42,300 people came to settle here. Down south there is now a population density higher than that of Germany, and twice that of France. Nor is there any prospect of let-up: between 2010 and 2036 the UK’s population is set to grow by almost 11 million. Around half of this will be the direct result of immigration. This has many consequences. One of them is an insatiable demand for houses. Ineffective control of immigration can only make the problem worse.
And when it comes to meeting this demand, it is not “planning” that is the major obstacle – though the system is cumbersome and fraught with frustrating bureaucratic process: it takes an inordinate amount of time for appeals to be held and judgment given.
The main obstacle to a revival in housebuilding now is a continuing low level of available mortgage finance. Figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders show gross mortgage lending at £12.7 billion in July, just 2 per cent up on the figure a year ago, and still only about a third of the monthly level seen when the property market was at its peak in the summer of 2007.
Writing in a national newspaper earlier this week, a Scottish developer, the Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair, said there is no shortage of demand for new houses, but there is a shortage of available mortgage finance, “and as a result building sites grind to a halt with a consequential effect on all the industries that depend on a healthy construction market”. The banks, he added, created the mess in the first place by irresponsible lending “and are now exacerbating the situation by going too far in the other direction”. If the government wants to kick-start the housing industry, it should put in place a mortgage guarantee system. Tinkering with planning laws, he warned, would take years to wash through the system.
As for overcoming local objections to development, various schemes can be considered. Builders could be offered incentives to redevelop brownfield sites. The think tank Policy Exchange has suggested that green belt intrusion could be offset by the conversion of brownfield sites into mini parks and green spaces. Where there are local objections to development, it has also suggested tax breaks or benefit sharing as a means to encourage support.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister will struggle against the champions of localism in his own party and the in-built resistance to “speeding up the planning system”. It has been the cry of politicians for decades. And it is unlikely to change any time soon.
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