How the Tories can 'level up' without annoying Nimbys

6 October 2021

12:48 AM

6 October 2021

12:48 AM

Have the Conservatives lost their nerve on planning reform? Not quite, but a couple of small interventions at the Conservative party conference in Manchester point in a new direction. If anything, they suggest more ambition, not less, on the part of the ministerial team involved – though less opportunity for a falling out with southern voters.

The first, by Michael Gove, was yesterday in a Policy Exchange fringe event with Sebastian Payne on the latter’s new book, Broken Heartlands.

The new Levelling Up Secretary told his interviewer that the gap between paying monthly rent and paying monthly mortgage instalments – which are lower than rents for first-time buyers lucky enough to get on the housing ladder – is a ‘cripplingly unfair’ disparity that he wants to fix.

He then highlighted something he described as ‘incredibly counter-intuitive’:

‘You will automatically assume that the areas where the rent is proportionately higher than the cost of your mortgage would be in the South and South East. It’s not. The area where generation rent is suffering more is in Yorkshire and Humber and in the North East.’

So, he argued:

‘If you really, really wanted 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 beforehand.’ 

In other words, though he didn’t quite say this, planning reform doesn’t have to be just about overcoming opposition to new building where it is strongest, i.e. in the Home Counties.

Those who think our planning system is stuck in a post-war time warp, based on 1947 legislation (the Town and Country Planning Act), will throw their hands up at this. Don’t Tories want people to get on their bikes and find work where it is? Let the market, not Nimbys and local councillors (or Levelling Up secretaries), decide what gets built where.

That idea was at the heart of the Big Bang under consideration by the Government, which would have been a totally new planning system based on streamlined rules: here’s where you can build, here’s where you can’t. There would be much less room for objections to individual developments.

It’s widely thought now – especially after the Lib Dem by-election victory in Chesham and Amersham – that the forthcoming Planning Bill won’t be such a declaration of war on the Nimby interest. There is still a desire in Government to empower others, apart from Nimbys, who don’t normally interact with planning, so there are more competing voices in the local debate. But a second intervention, by Neil O’Brien, the new Levelling Up minister under Gove, hints that the Government might be thinking bigger and more ambitiously on planning reform.

Speaking to another Policy Exchange event, O’Brien – who is overseeing the White Paper on Levelling Up – explained his vision on housing policy. Noting ‘the limits of mobility as a solution’, he said:

‘If your housing policy is always about following where housing prices are high right now, rather than where it’s got scope to grow… And if in your research and development policies, you want to put it into lots of academic research in ancient universities, and to continue to consolidate on to them… And if your cultural policy is to keep investing in the institutions that are already good now, rather than looking at the opportunity in the future, you’re looking at the past – you’re driving in the rear-view mirror – then you can unwittingly create what economists would call the Matthew effect. ‘To those that have more shall be given’.’

It may only be two points in passing, but Gove and O’Brien – both very early on in their new roles – seem to be hinting at a new priority for the Government on planning reform.

Yes, they will continue with aspects of the reforms as set out by Gove’s predecessor, Robert Jenrick. Gove for instance was careful to mention ‘building beautiful’ yesterday. This was a reference to Policy Exchange’s 2018 report Building More, Building Beautiful, largely adopted by Government, to overcome Nimbyism with housing developments that are built in designs and styles that are popular with the public. The new design codes are not going to be abandoned.

But are the Government’s planning reforms going to see a boom in housebuilding in the South East – and an ever greater domination of the UK economy by London? Well, even if both ministers do accept the need to build in the Home Counties, and councils choose to play ball, that alone doesn’t quite work for a Government that, in Gove’s words, wants people to be able to ‘stay local and go far’ – or to return home after university and the early part of their career.

It’s not that Gove and O’Brien are objecting to the market deciding where people choose to live and work. It’s that in Levelling Up they want to change the entire market, so that people – guided by market forces that are more favourable to living and working in the north – are less likely to get on their bikes and head for the south east. Don’t vastly increase the supply of houses in the south-east, perhaps, but aim to reduce the demand for them with higher rates of building in the north.

The fact that there are far fewer northern Nimbys than there are in the south – so less of a political battle ahead on this – surely seals the deal.

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