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Planning Reforms Are Turning the Tories on Each Other

Michael Gove has paused the government's neoliberal planning reforms after a backlash from rural Tory heartlands – but neither camp will give us the democratic planning system we need.

Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Reports suggest that the government is backing down from its ‘once in a generation’ planning reforms, proposed last year. These proposals have been the centrepiece of ongoing Tory infighting, but it’s not the first time a Tory government has had to roll back on plans for a truly neoliberal planning system, free from the discretionary structures implemented after the war with the aim of democratising decisions over land use.

In the 1980s the Conservative government, similarly drunk on hubris after hammering the Left, were intent on a full neoliberalisation of the planning system. A series of government circulars as well as the 1985 white paper Lifting the Burden had chipped away at a planning process which was identified as one of the state blockages to business and the market. Arch Thatcherite Nicholas Ridley popularised the term ‘NIMBY’ to target those who objected to development through the planning system.

The problem then, as now, is that the liberalisation of planning system antagonises Conservative voters, too. One of the circulars (no. 18/84) looked to reduce the restrictions imposed by the green belt; another looked to downgrade the power of local plans developed by councils (no. 14/85). Tory MPs found that this caused a backlash in their rural heartlands, and, embarrassingly, Ridley himself was found to have objected to a housing development near his Cotswolds mansion.

A turning point came when a major new housing development in Foxley Wood, Hampshire, was granted permission by Ridley amid widespread protests from locals, only to be overturned by his successor Chris Patten. The ‘new consensus’ for planning in the ’90s maintained local authority discretion within planning decisions alongside the more market-friendly policies and practices developed through the ’80s.

Perhaps mindful of this period, the twenty-first-century Tories were cautious not to ignite the same fury with their reforms in 2011/12. Despite identifying planning as, in the words of Eric Pickles, ‘the last bastion of communism’, these reforms were categorical in their emphasis on local power in opposition to the ‘quangos’ and regional governance arrangements introduced under Labour: they even termed the legislation the Localism Act. Just as in the ’80s, though, these reforms, waived through by the Lib Dems, were a significant deregulatory move, and were combined with major austerity cuts to planning departments which have led to a de facto privatisation of planning.

This summer, another Conservative government appears to have been limited in its reforming zeal by its own tempestuous voters. The recent reforms, outlined in the white paper Planning for the Future, went further than the Thatcherites in the 1980s by proposing to remove the discretionary decision-making of local councils in favour of a zonal, rules-based approach which centralised policy and powers in the hands of government ministers.

In his foreword to the paper, Boris Johnson declared that the planning system was ‘not fit for human habitation’, even though the 2012 reforms has ‘stripped the asbestos from the roof’, in a typically laboured metaphor. Weeks before the paper’s launch, he had emphasised the need to ‘Build Build Build’, restating the neoliberal creed that it is ‘the job of government to create the conditions for free market enterprise’.

The proposals met a backlash from environmental and civil society groups, and those representing planning professionals – but the killer blow seems to have come with a by-election in which Tory voters expressed their discontent at the ballot box. The people of Chesham and Amersham were so angered by the proposals that they were willing to be seen in public voting for the Liberal Democrats, and the Tories lost a 16,000 majority. Just as in the 1980s, Tory voters in the Home Counties rejected neoliberal planning reforms.

According to reports in the Times last week, the government is now set to abandon the removal of local authority discretion, and reconsider quite how crucial planning reform actually is. The Times report highlighted that 2019-20 saw the most (private) housebuilding since the 1980s, and that 1.1 million homes currently have planning permission, but have yet to materialise.

Indeed, anyone familiar with the planning system will tell you that it is absurdly permissive to private housing – most of it cheap, poor quality, and without easy access to amenities. The problem private developers have, including those who want to continue extracting fossil fuels, is that it is also possible to slow down developments, too. It is only within the circles of neoliberal thinktanks (often funded by housing developers and planning consultants) and a few hyper-online ‘YIMBY’ groups that the answer to this problem is further neoliberalisation.

Local authority planning may therefore survive in whatever legislation is brought forward this year, but planning has been eviscerated as a public institution. Conservative heartlands have once more placed a limit on neoliberal zealotry, and we should be glad of that. But to think that these reactionary tendencies and the government’s failed intentions are of progressive value would be a grave mistake.

The direction of travel in planning reform for the last fifteen years has been towards a more centralised system, led by ministerial interventions and antagonistic rhetoric against dissenting voices. This will soon be backed up with stronger policing powers against protestors, and an incredibly lax attitude to collecting even the most basic taxes on the value added by planning decisions.

The purpose of the supposedly ditched reforms was to reduce even further the limited democratic opportunities for the public to challenge decisions made by the government or capital, reduce costs for the companies, and replace political decisions with market logics. The new housing minister, Michael Gove, will likely still enact planning legislation that favours the rich over the poor and enshrine authoritarian state interventions over democratic deliberation. The only difference is that it will now likely have greater protections for the villages of the Southeast of England.

Now is the time for an alternative to the current malaise, to build out from the anachronistic kernel of social democracy which survives from the 1947 Planning Act and develop a planning process that replaces rather than extends the market as a logic of decision-making on how we use land. I do not expect that the Labour Party shares this ambition: they have vigorously opposed the reforms but lack anything in response other than reheating the pro-market, vaguely communitarian, and depoliticising system they presided over when last in government. Clear planning reforms were also absent under the Corbyn leadership, despite planning being something any ‘Green New Deal’ would need to take very seriously.

In a way, planning reform is a microcosm of the political moment: a hard right government still fighting the Thatcherite crusade, with an opposition offering little other than a gentler hand on the tiller of the collapsing market-capitalist experiment. Now more than ever, we cannot afford to leave land use decisions in the hands of technocrats and capitalists.