Thoughts on Planning
18 Jan 2005
There are always planning issues in a constituency such as North West Hants that is predominantly rural, and currently there are debates about the Manydown land on the west side of Basingstoke; and about land near Smannell to the east of Andover. Planners have a language of their own; homes are not homes but residential dwelling units; and so these two proposals are not for overspill, but for MDA’s – Major Development Areas. Both are very controversial, and unpopular with most of those who would be directly affected.
As a former Minister for Planning, I have some insight into and much caution for the planning process. I discovered that most of the decisions that I made never came anywhere near me; I called this the Dolcis principle, because the Inspectors that issued them said that they stood in the shoes of the Secretary of State.
But can we pick our way through the controversy and identify areas of agreement and disagreement?
I start from the premise that everyone is entitled to a decent home; and no one should be obliged to move miles from their roots in order to find it. While many can make provision for themselves in the open market – often with help from parents and grandparents – a large number cannot. This latter group now includes many in the professions and in other jobs without which local society could not operate.
The planning system should ensure that there is broad equilibrium between local demand and supply; and should provide access to good quality housing for whose who cannot afford it. This government inherited a policy whereby, in major new developments, a percentage of the homes should be affordable. (In effect, the difference between the open market price and a lower price or rental is paid for by the landowner who gets less of a windfall for the sale of his land.) The capacity of Housing Associations was also boosted by enabling them to borrow from the markets, in addition to the funds they got from the Government.
So far, so good.
The disagreement is mainly about the numbers on the demand side; but it is also about future availability of windfall sites – which by definition cannot be accurately predicted; about how far ahead it is meaningful to make plans; about the wisdom of planning for continuing migration from the cities and other parts of the country into the South East; about “West of London versus East of London”; and, crucially, about who is best placed to make the key decisions - folk at the centre or folk locally. Under the present Government there has been less and less scope for influence by local authorities.
There is not space to address all these items in the column; but forecasting the numbers is not a mathematical process. It involves heroic social assumptions, not least on net inward migration into and around the UK, and future rates of household breakups. Prescott’s forecasts, on which the current process is based, are almost certainly wrong. Ken Livingstone and I are, paradoxically, in agreement that the Home Counties should not continue to plan for a relentless exodus from London – he wants to keep people in the capital and make it a place people want to stay in and not flee from.
My instincts are “Bottom up, not Top Down.” In other words, responsibility should rest with Hampshire County Council and the Districts for deciding both on numbers and location. I don’t accept that this will disadvantage local people. On the contrary, if there was local ownership of the planning process, rather than dictation from on high, the policy would be better targeted on local needs; more responsive to local views; and there would be less hostility to the plan that emerged. This debate will run and run - so watch this space – unless someone builds on it!
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