It feels like a time for reflection. I’ll draw a curtain over my gauche joke when confronted by the Queen as she visited the RICS headquarters in 1999 to celebrate the centenary of its George Street home. Let’s stick to political thoughts, given that a new administration is finding its way.
The new secretary of state for all things planning, housing and property is Simon Clarke. The 37-year-old Truss appointee is seen as a coming man. So here are some reflections drawn from interviewing about half of Clarke’s 20 or so predecessors, starting with Nicholas Ridley in 1986.
Beware the quagmire
Planning first: it’s a bog where rising stars disappear and the question becomes ‘where are they now?’ Smile glassily at housebuilders griping about costs and delays – point out how easily they refill their land banks and bank accounts.
Be wary of professional institutions. George Bernard Shaw’s belief that ‘all professions are conspiracies against the laity’ holds true with planning. Professionals regard lay objectors as woolly-headed nuisances, while trade bodies hold them in secret contempt. Take care, because the laity are also voters. Scan back over the impotent attempts to ‘improve the planning system’ over the past quarter century and quail. Review with a caustic eye any proposals on your desk that have the fingerprints of bright young folk from think tanks.
Housing second: stay mum. It does seem to be dawning on the Conservative Party that calling for 300,000 homes a year to be built by ‘the mid 2020s’ is about as pointless as setting a three-year plan to boost car production. Car producers decide output, as do housebuilders. Private sector output dances to the tune of the economy.
This will not, of course, stop either Liz Truss, or indeed Kier Starmer, trumpeting the need to ‘solve the housing crisis’ – a promise as meaningless as repeated pledges to ‘improve the planning system.’ Best if nobody ever mentions the number 300,000 again, and probably best not to mention that idea Truss had in 2019 about allowing building on land around new stations. In theory, yes; in practice, don’t go there, that path leads to the planning bog.
Commercial property: leave this mostly to other departments. Their real concerns tend to be those of business in general – fiscal policy, taxation, stamp duty, business rates and lately, to a point of obsession, sustainability and diversity. Good for them. They will moan about planning but, well, see above.
“We should be thrilled that he is our new secretary of state,” says Jackie Sadek, my co-author on Broken Homes, and an adviser to Clarke’s predecessor Greg Clark, during his first stint in the chair in 2015.
“Clarke is very highly regarded in Whitehall, and obviously immensely able. I served alongside Simon on a Department for Transport ‘Restoring Your Railways’ panel when he was local government minister during the pandemic. We embarked on reversing a number of cuts to the railways in ‘left behind’ towns.”
Michael Heseltine, John Gummer and Michael Gove were the best secretaries of state. Labour never really saw the full picture. To John Prescott, who ruled the department at the turn of the millennium from his perch as deputy prime minister, it was all about housing.
Afterwards, it became all about planning reform, but only because Labour mistakenly thought that would open the housing valve.
Earlier this year I sat in a minister’s office banging on about how a particular issue must be tackled. As the discussion carried on around me, I began
to appreciate the limits of political power. How ministers lived in the real world of hard choice and compromise, and how easy it is for lobbyists and commentators to suggest what must be done – how hard it is to execute even good ideas. That is why my suggestions lean toward not doing things.
Peter Bill is a journalist and the author of Planet Property and Broken Homes