Planning for whose future?

TL:DR On the Government’s new Planning White Paper avoiding anything more than the most minimal of scrutiny.

The White Paper policy document is called Planning for the Future – and incorporates a consultation as well. The consultation ends on 29 October 2020. John Crace in The Guardian has this acidic take.

One of the things that used to oil the wheels of Whitehall and Westminster were a whole series of conventions and assumptions – things that did not require onerous rules and micromanagement…and ‘red tape’. But we’re not dealing with an administration that plays by those rules. In that regard, MPs of the recent past as well as present only have themselves to blame. Ditto his media cheer leaders. Not that we weren’t warned. Even the Newzoids of 2015 called it right.

In one sense I shrug my shoulders at the whole thing. Johnson chose to withhold a vital security report of the utmost importance for party political gain. In almost any other circumstance a prime minister on the receiving end of such a report from the Intelligence and Security Committee would have fallen. But then similar things were said about the now long forgotten Scott Inquiry.

Scott Inquiry?

Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war throughout the 1980s. Halfway through, the House of Commons voted to abide by a UN arms embargo on both sides. When the war ended, ministers changed the guidance to enable firms to export to Iraq – but didn’t tell the Commons. After the First Gulf War, one firm – Matrix Churchill, a machine tools firm, was charged with illegal exports, something that carried a prison sentence for directors if convicted. The firm’s defence wanted to use documents to show they were exporting with the agreement of the British Government.

The problem was that such documents being made public in court would have exposed ministers as having misled Parliament. So ministers signed off a series of “Public Interest Immunity Certificates” which would have had the effect of preventing the essential documents from being disclosed in court. Signing off such certificates is *not* a routine function for ministers. It is equivalent to the Ministerial Veto on Freedom of Information – first used by Jack Straw on the Iraq War advice in 2009. In the case of Matrix Churchill, ministers stood accused of being willing to see innocent people going to prison in order to cover up for their own actions including accusations of misleading Parliament – something that would in those days have ended their political careers – as happened to former Defence Secretary John Profumo when he misled Parliament.

It was the actions of Michael Hestletine – then a Cabinet Minister, who refused to sign the immunity certificates and flagged them up with the trial judge that led to the trial collapsing. The summary account in The Independent here is compelling reading. The BBC2 program in February 1996 covers the publication of the report.

If you are into recent political history, the above is *electrifying* and features some familiar faces looking very young. Starting with Andrew Marr. (Robin Cook’s speech here is worth watching in full).

“You’ve gone off track – what about the Planning White Paper?”

The Cabinet Minister responsible for the White Paper is Robert Jenrick – who refused to resign over his actions over a property deal that he approved in the face of very strong advice from the Planning Inspector and civil servants to refuse – supporting the decision of the local planning authority, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. When Tower Hamlets went to the High Court to get the decision quashed, details of the Jenrick meeting with the former newspaper owner behind the scheme came out – as did the correspondence between them which he had to concede appeared to show bias. The case is being reassessed by another minister.

That the Secretary of State responsible for increasing provision for affordable housing and maintaining the integrity of the planning system was shown to have given preference to a party donor thus depriving one of the most impoverished London boroughs of £millions for affordable housing speaks volumes. Which is why I think he should have had the decency to have resigned – and failing that the Prime Minister should have dismissed him. Neither happened.

There are some remarkable similarities between the two cases. Both involved senior ministers, both involved court cases, both strike at the heart of ministerial accountability, propriety, integrity and honesty to Parliament. And both involved ministers staying in office neither resigning nor being sacked by the prime ministers of the day.

“The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are still in post – with an 80 seat majority in the Commons.”

And they have released a major policy document during recess that will affect the whole country potentially for decades to come. We are influenced by the buildings and built environment that we construct – for ourselves and for our descendants. (Just as we are influenced by the built environment built by our ancestors).

One of the conventions that underpins Parliamentary accountability of ministers is that when the Government of the day announces a new policy, *they announce it to Parliament first* – in the form of a statement to Parliament after which MPs and Peers then have the ability to cross-examine ministers over the content of the policy. But with Parliament in recess for the rest of the month there is no opportunity for MPs or peers to do so. This is something that Mr Speaker Hoyle really needs to make a statement over – if not now then as soon as Parliament resumes in early September.

“Anything to say about the document itself?”

There has been a lot of hostility from people who know far more than I do:

RIBA – the Royal Institute for British Architects slammed the policies in this press release.

RTPI – Royal Town Planning Institute raised big concerns over resourcing and the failure of developers to turn planning permissions into buildings.

The Local Government Association raised the issue of unbuilt planning permissions granted – over a million in Feb 2020. I’ve not seen anything in the proposals that deals with this.

Shelter, the homelessness charity raised huge concerns on the scrapping of developer contributions to affordable homes and infrastructure without a guaranteed alternative.

Prof Ben Clifford of University College London said the proposals on permitted development risked building the slums of the future.

The Town and Country Planning Association said the proposals risked depriving democratic input of local councils into the planning system.

The Labour Party’s official response from Shadow Housing & Planning Minister Mike Amesbury has slammed the proposals as a developers’ charter.

The Liberal Democrats said the proposals will do nothing to alleviate the housing crisis.

The Green Party’s MP Caroline Lucas slammed the proposals as a bonfire of planning laws that will lead to poor standards and sprawl.

“How will the Tory backbench MPs in rural constituencies bordering cities with high demand react?”

This was something I’ve been pondering in terms of the fallout in the villages that surround Cambridge. It was also picked up by Isabel Hardman who as well as being one of the nicest people in political journalism is also one of the sharpest of political analysts. And there are already ongoing protests over the impact of housing growth on our rivers and streams. I’ve not seen anything that deals with water demand that will inevitably rise with the new homes and buildings.

The next nationwide Census is due in March 2021 – it will be very interesting to see what has happened in terms of population changes in and around Cambridge – South Cambridgeshire constituency likely to show significant increases with the completion of a number of significant housing developments. That said, it will be harder to predict the party political impact because all three parties have held high profile local decision-making functions in particular with the Greater Cambridge Partnership, along with Cambridge City Council being Labour-run, South Cambridgeshire District Council being LibDems-run, and Cambridgeshire County Council and the Combined Authority & Mayor being Conservative.

If you wanted to design a system of local government that encourages conflict and paralysis, it might look something like the above – all the result of ministerial micromanagement.

Given that we are still in a pandemic situation, have a no deal Brexit looming, a climate crisis now here, and an economy that was already in trouble prior to the pandemic, it’s all the more striking that the Prime Minister has chosen now to unleash these changes to the planning system that don’t actually deal with the main structural weaknesses of it – such as developers not completing planning permissions, the impact of international property sales and financial speculation, and the massive retrofitting operation that’s needed to improve housing to deal with poor health and the climate emergency.

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