I am clearly not the only commentator who takes the much-trumpeted commitment in the Queen’s Speech to reform of the planning system with a large pinch of salt.
Last week in Property Week, my esteemed colleague Peter Bill laid out the reasons that wholesale change in the form that housing and planning secretary Robert Jenrick has articulated is not only not the answer to the housing shortage but has the capability to make things worse.
Yes, it would be sensible to scrap S106 and CIL and replace them with a levy – the current system is far too close to chequebook planning for any fair-minded person to want that arbitrary system to continue. And yes, while councillors are obliged to listen to their constituents who are more likely to oppose new settlements than approve them, there is nobody there to argue for those who need the homes – except, of course, the developer who is regarded as a money-driven cynic rather than a humanitarian.
So some change is both desirable and overdue. But this week, I reflect on my experience as a county councillor for eight years, an MP for 15 and a minister in Her Majesty’s government for just short of five to argue that the bill in its current form will not pass – not because of its technical shortcomings but because Jenrick’s parliamentary colleagues are simply not going to wear it.
The reaction from Boris Johnson’s backbenchers is already hostile. Nor is it confined to the usual suspects. To understand the depth of feeling, it is important to appreciate how politics works in practice in every constituency.
When I joined Berkshire County Council in 1977, councillors had real responsibilities and the powers to go with them. In the following four decades under governments of both persuasions those powers have been consistently eroded.
These days, the average council gets 17% of its income from local council taxpayers and 83% of councils’ income comes in the form of grants from central government, often in ways that offer no room for manoeuvre.
I recall serving on the Treasury’s Growth Taskforce for HS2 in 2013. Our remit was to ensure that the cities that would benefit from new stations were taking full advantage of the opportunity.
In each city we asked the (all Labour) councils whether they needed more money to extract maximum value. They all said no, what they needed was the ability to spend the money they already got from central government more sensibly on the real priorities of their cities rather than those dictated by Westminster.
The only real power a local councillor has these days is the power to determine planning applications. Having been an MP, I know that while I could suggest how my councillor colleagues might vote, it was always their decision and not mine.
Frankly, if l’d made a fuss they would have resented the interference. And if I had been tempted to vote for a bill to emasculate those same councillors by removing their ability to challenge applications they or their voters didn’t like, I would have to remember that those same people were the activists putting my leaflets through the door at election time, manning the polling stations and actually getting the vote out. Lose them and I run the serious risk of losing my seat.
Labour candidates have just learned the hard way what happens when you take your base for granted. If I were still an MP and Jenrick’s bill appeared on the order paper, I would decline to support it. Even if I thought it had merit – which I don’t – I would know that my continued presence in that chamber depended on the goodwill and co-operation of the very people most hostile to it.
Call me a cynic, but that’s real life in politics and Jenrick should be very careful where he treads.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built