Where now for planning? Reflections from a lapsed geographer

As an A-Level Geography student at a Lancastrian school I was secretly quite proud of the fact that the North of England was rising by some 10cm per century. As all geographers know, this process is called post-glacial rebound; geological ‘levelling up’, if you will. I know not whether Michael Gove had this concept in mind when he said this at the Conservative Party Conference:

“….. if you really, really want to help those who are currently in rented accommodation and want to own their own homes, then the focus shouldn’t necessarily be geographically where it’s been before.”

Mr Gove’s shift in geographical focus was in response to the fact that the apparent disparity between the lifetime costs of rents and that of a mortgage is actually higher in Yorkshire and the North East. Many have taken this as an indication that the freshly rebranded Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities will focus its attention on housebuilding in “the North”.

This is good news for many Place North West readers but also an obvious response to the rift valley that is emerging between voters in the South East (an area which is sinking at a rate of around 5cm per 100 years in case you were wondering) worried about ‘over development’ as well as the Government’s commitment to the Standard Methodology and to delivering 300,000 homes each year.

The Secretary of State also suggested that there would be renewed attention on ‘neglected’ brownfield sites but when was there not such a policy focus and when did brownfield sites deliver in full the homes that are needed?

We already knew that Michael Gove loves a bangin’ House tune but who knew he was also a fan of Oprah Winfrey? According to Mr Gove, “levelling up” means that people should be able to choose their own future, own their own home and – here’s Oprah – “live their best life”. How these laudable aims are to be achieved will no doubt become clear in the fullness of time but what about the short term?

Oliver Dowden let us know that the Party had “the wisdom to listen to people and the humility to learn how we can do better. That’s why we are looking again at our planning reforms.” There was no mention by any Minister of zoning or the 300,000 homes a year target or the algorithm (mutant or otherwise). Taken together we can reasonably assume that the big ticket reforms laid out in last year’s whitepaper will not see the light of day.

But beauty is here to stay. Mr Dowden was reported as recognising the need for new houses but advocating ‘additional safeguards’. To that end, there must be ‘measures to protect our towns, villages and precious countryside from being despoiled by ugly development’. We shall have to wait and see what ‘additional safeguards’ will be forthcoming but a betting person might read this as confirmation that design codes are to become embedded in the planning system.

Mr Gove has thrown his weight behind a report entitled Trusting the People, prepared by ten Conservative MPs channelling the spirits of Disraeli, Churchill (Winston and Randloph) and Thatcher. What does ‘trusting the people’ mean for planning? It means “making neighbourhood planning universal and the ultimate arbiter of local development”, which harks back to the more ambitious elements of Localism. We may not be about to witness the introduction of third party rights of appeal but one wonders how regional issues such as housing and employment need or cross-boundary infrastructure requirements can possibly be addressed effectively without some form of strategic planning. Plan-making at the micro-level is highly unlikely to result in the ‘levelling up’ or the sunlit uplands promised so many times by the Government.

At a Policy Exchange event, Michael Gove offered this comment:

“The root to having more good homes, more affordable homes, is not simply through planning reform to increase supply”

He inferred that he would support the Government investing in regeneration. It is often a fool’s errand to interpret political statements but this was about as close as the Secretary of State has come to suggesting that the existing planning system might just be fit for purpose but that under investment by central Government has resulted in some of the problems that the country currently faces – perceived or otherwise. Perhaps it is also the slightest of nods to the RTPI’s request to invest £500m in making the system we presently have work better.

Ending where I began with my geographical theme, the tectonic shift in approach outlined in Planning for the Future appears now to have been washed away by the tides of political expediency. In policy terms it is a hanging valley, an ox bow lake, an erratic boulder standing lonely in a glacial landscape. We have left the Jenrickaceous period and have now entered the Govian timescale.

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