This week we hear from Hashi Mohamed, who is one of those remarkable people who runs the risk of making almost everyone else feel like a lazy failure. He is not only an accomplished barrister, broadcaster and author but also a former refugee, underscoring the extent to which he has made his own success.
But I fear even the redoubtable Mohamed may struggle to make a dent in the housing crisis, given the mire of self-interests that have conspired to create it. There is an elephant or two in the room that politicians prefer not to acknowledge, and these are obstinate pachyderms.
The housing crisis is inextricably linked to planning policy, which is highly political in the strictest sense that votes depend on it. Hence the circus parade we have seen in recent years, in which colourful proposals about planning reform were made, debated and then abandoned.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at the lack of progress, given our government can’t even agree on whether it wants a housebuilding target or not.
Mohamed throws it out there: “Maybe there is a question to be asked about whether there needs to be less democracy [in planning].”
Back in 2020, it looked like we might actually get just that, via surprising proposals made under Robert Jenrick’s tenure as housing secretary, to create zones with presumed approval. These ideas went down like leaden elephant droppings, hastily buried by alarmed backbenchers fearing for their seats.
Also ths week, columnist Paul Finch ponders how “beauty” managed to complicate the planning debate in the same period, despite an evident unwillingness on the part of government to define the term. Finch reveals how scant clues in the National Design Guide remain contradictory and “very odd”.
Beauty is an issue that underscores how far the politics of planning has strayed from reality. The world in which a cabinet minister can blather on about beautiful buildings is the same one in which a small boy can die in mould-infested misery for want of better housing.
Mohamed points out that in 1950, a former Conservative government resolved to build 300,000 houses a year and by 1953 had hit its target.
That, of course, was a different era. It was the last gasp of modernism, when people still valued science and progress, experts were heeded and targets were things you actually aimed for.
Today, in our postmodern era of scepticism, values are more fluid. Opinion is in the ascendancy and facts are out of fashion. Current housing secretary Michael Gove infamously observed, in the heat of the Brexit debate, that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”.
But in a postmodern twist, that quote itself is a fake-news ‘fact’. It has gained broad currency but the meaning is lost. In 2016, Gove was actually referring to the fallibility of forecasters, saying: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
He had a fair point. Trust ought to depend on outcomes not qualifications, on deeds not words.
That is a principle I hope Gove remembers as he squares up – yet again – to the intractable problems of planning and housing.