Picture credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Planning to fail

Britain’s population is rapidly growing but the authorities seem implacably opposed to building new houses

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

No one should believe that this country is corrupt in any serious way. Despite decades of networking and friendships it has been shown to me how uninfluential I am. Not that I attempted to flex. 

When one of our planning applications was called in for adjudication by the secretary of state I was assiduous in not contacting any of the departmental ministers, even though I have known Michael Gove since he was a cub reporter on The Times and I was an even younger politico. For a year I did not attend any Conservative party events nor donate in any way. It was probably wise, I thought, not to allow the generosity of my presence and money to seem conflicted. Political support does not affect planning decisions — unless in this case it did, perhaps because no one likes me? 

The scheme was rejected by the housing minister on behalf of the Govester, who might have had no knowledge of it. It is unlikely that the junior minister had much influence or care either, the decision having the imprint of civil service cowardice. She lost her job in the last reshuffle which, although it brought a smile to my prejudiced face, I doubt had anything to do with me. 

For some unexplained reason the housing minister’s post is the pass-the-parcel executive office for ministerial experience. There have been 15 since 2010. Given its complexity and intrinsic dullness this inevitably means that the civil service runs the role, for good or ill, and the machine plods along without radical change, silting itself up with the accretions of bureaucratic priorities. 

Unsurprisingly this, atop an underfunded and complex planning system, means the number of consents filtering through the system is inadequate to the country’s needs. With our population almost entirely through immigration growing so rapidly — typically a quarter of a million net a year in the last decade and over 600,000 net in 2022 — where are they going to live? We are not building enough hotels, let alone houses. 

I knew one of those recent past ministers quite well. As we smoked cigars on a country walk, he explained the frustrations of his job. One was that the national planning inspectorate, which deals with appeals from local authorities, reported its work-in-progress to him only once a quarter. I told him to press for a weekly summary and to try to link their pay to turnover. He was moved on to another position before I could discover whether this advice was heeded. 

My scheme’s only fault was to propose houses in breach of a numbers cap recommended by the Neighbourhood Plan (NP). When we applied in 2019 these nimby charters did not have the same weighting in planning terms that they do now. Originally envisaged as tools for influencing density, design and amenities, there is now no Neighbourhood Plan in the country which actually calls for more housing. 

A useful reform that would not need anything more difficult to deliver than the tweaking of ministerial guidance could be to reduce the weighting given by planning inspectors to NP numbers — not to abolish this concern, just reduce its emphasis. That would help deliver more houses. 

Anyway, after an inexplicable delay of a year in the Department of Levelling Up and more money burnt away in costs than I could have thought possible, this scheme, in an area of acute housing shortage, will have to wait years before we can reapply. Not that I am surprised. We may not be a corrupt country, but we are administratively inefficient. 

If you are against development then a career in planning is useful

If you are against development then a career in planning is useful. In this area the planning officer retired, became a Green Party councillor and led the opposition to us. The local MP was also a lowly bag-carrier to the Mighty Gove, which probably didn’t help me. But the irritation felt when we could not agree to the scheme with the locals — they demanded half the number of houses we wanted, which would have made the development unviable — was diminished when I noticed that they were selling “Stop Leavesley” t-shirts. 

Not owning a t-shirt, I was tempted to buy one but managed to resist. Incidentally I do own a hoodie, much to my surprise. It turned up after I sponsored my local rugby team. I like to wear it with a tweed flatcap. This confuses people, including me. 

What negligible influence I seem to have politically for my own business is even less apparent for national issues. I was one of the unheeded voices arguing for the retention of HS2. Andy Street, West Midlands mayor, tried with the PM at the Conservative conference (which, for the first time in years, I did not attend). Street and Sunak have rare qualities for Tories — they are likeable, intelligent and competent. I agree with the mayor that cancelling the northern leg of the line from Birmingham to Manchester in a way cancels the future for the north. 

The economic case was never really about faster journey times or freeing up line capacity. Major infrastructure projects are magnets for private and international investment. These are impossible to quantify until, say, 10 years after opening. The Jubilee Line extension and the Elizabeth Line are proving this. 

The late Roger Dickens, consigliere to the Birmingham business mafia, knew this. When the Department of Transport commissioned a viability study from KPMG sometime in the 1990s, he dictated the conclusion beforehand to the underling who then wrote the preceding. I know this because they both told me. 

Sunak announced a multiplicity of alternative transport projects. There is no denying this is a small, overcrowded island and most of us live either in London or the central belt of England. Planning consents are therefore even more complicated than in bureaucracy-loving France, which has lovely fast trains and two-thirds more land for the same size of population. This is part of the price of trying to do business here. However, the delays and cost overruns indulged by HS2 have been a national embarrassment. Its management should be tarred and feathered. 

I told Andy he should lobby Sunak to become the HS2 minister from Birmingham (did the current one do anything?) with a mandate to deliver it on budget. He would have needed the promise of primary legislation to simplify the planning process though, since that is where the delay and therefore much of the increased costs stem from. He has not yet told me how that conversation went but we know the result. The sad truth is, unless we change how we deliver infrastructure, most of those confidently announced alternative projects will meet with much the same cost overruns and delays. 

Our planning system is not fit for purpose. For a G7 industrial nation searching for economic growth this is truly pathetic. 

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