The Art of The Possible

“Politics is the art of the possible”Otto von Bismarck

Government reshuffles are brutal affairs. In no other walk of life are burgeoning careers cut down so publicly. Behind every axed Minister there are thousands of disappointed lobbyists and companies who invested in their success.

The defenestration of Robert Jenrick was particularly harsh as he was seen a man with the ear of the Prime-Minister and was delivering an agenda the PM had publicly championed.

Hadn’t Boris said that thanks to our planning system, “we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places”. Didn’t he acknowledge that “the time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do – tear it down and start again.”  Didn’t he promise radical reform “unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”. “Not more fiddling around the edges, not simply painting over the damp patches, but levelling the foundations and building, from the ground up, a whole new planning system for England.”

Well, a pandemic and a reshuffle later, Jenrick has gone, and the smart money is on the Government retreating from its 300,000 homes a year target, ditching radical planning reform, and returning the emphasis to brownfield sites. Nothing is as transient as political promises not grounded in reality, and the truth is that the Planning White Paper was deeply flawed and politically undeliverable.

The clumsy adoption of the ‘mutant algorithm’ was politically tone deaf.  Front-loading Local Plan making with ‘zoned sites’ implied a predetermination which was in direct conflict with the capacity of local councillors to shape their communities. It seemed Jenrick was going out of his way to antagonise the Tory Shires.  A stark difference from The Tory conference where Boris and Michael Gove went out of their way to signal a shift in direction.

Clearly the reshuffle has heralded a major rethink of the Government’s priorities and delivery strategy for the development industry. A change of tack that raises significant questions for homebuilders.

Not everything has turned to dust. The work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission chimes with deep-seated Tory sensibilities, and we can expect a renewed focus on great design and build quality. Particularly given the context of the need to address post-Grenfell Building safety and shoddy construction issues.

Let’s also recognise that DLUHC has one of the strongest ministerial teams in Whitehall.  Neil O’Brien is a true believer who’s been thinking seriously about ‘Levelling Up” for years.  Kemi Badenoch is one of the brightest of the new Tory MPs and Chris Pincher is a serious Whitehall operator who understands the housing agenda and is well-placed to pick winners from the previous planning reforms.

Michael Gove is a master at defining and delivering a political agenda and probably the most consummate Cabinet Minister in the Government. He knows that by trusting him with “campaigning for the Union” and “delivering Levelling Up”, Boris has put him at the heart of the mission around which they will fight the next election.

Let’s not obsess over the unwelcome messages in some party conference speeches. We all know – and so does Boris and his Ministers – that there is insufficient brownfield land to accommodate the required scale of housebuilding we need, and that levelling up by building in the north does nothing to address housing need and affordability crisis in the south.

But Ministers also know that what matters in politics is finding the messages and policies which not only deliver real world change in line with your goals, but also crucially resonate with  the electorate.

To quote Bismarck, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” So, we need to understand and engage with the agenda Michael Gove has been tasked to deliver.

Radical planning reform, “a whole new planning system for England” is not happening. Signalling this might actually improve matters, given the delays inherent in waiting for White Papers, Consultation responses and eventually legislation, which further delay Local Plans and create more logjams in delivering consents. We should have DLUHC’s more ‘pragmatic’ reform ideas later this year, and hopefully there will be much we can get behind which is deliverable.

Far too many LPA’s don’t have Local Plans and many that are in place are out of date.  The Secretary of State and PINS already have power here.  We need to demonstrate the case for central intervention to push Local Authorities to perform but equally we need to recognise that Planning Departments are very under resourced. We need to make the case for more resources to support improved performance.

We are also awaiting a White Paper on Devolution and hopefully a more considered regional strategy. There is a renewed interest in and enthusiasm for reinvigorating civic leadership to promote regional growth. It’s clear that Metro Mayors in Teesside, Birmingham, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, and Sheffield are making a difference.

It’s equally obvious that the ‘Duty to Cooperate’ has failed, and in many areas the two-tier model is not fit for purpose. Small local districts cannot deliver housing numbers or meet strategic planning goals. But whilst a wholesale top-down, uniform, reorganisation of local government is unlikely – where there is local support, – local authorities are likely to be encouraged to collaborate in new models of regional cooperation. Developers need to be watching any changes closely and anticipating the new planning and delivery vehicles that might emerge.

Devolution opens up interesting opportunities for housebuilding. If the Government want to “level up” and channel funding and new devolved powers via the metro/regional/local state, why cannot this be linked to meeting housing targets?  Why not empower and challenge regional leaderships and LAs to either deliver under their own steam, or to work collaboratively across local government boundaries to champion larger settlements, with the right infrastructure in place and large amounts of central funding to sweeten the process?

Now the Government has rebooted their team and their agenda, the development community needs to respond constructively to a more pragmatic approach to planning reform and start to engage with the devolution and levelling up debate as both will have significant implications for housing delivery.

This article was first published in Housebuilder Magazine, you can read it here.