When Dominic Cummings stormed out of Downing Street earlier this month he left behind a time bomb more explosive than any pandemic recession or no-deal Brexit. Those pestilences will pass. If enacted, the Cummings-inspired white paper Planning for the Future will scar England’s face for ever.
The paper promises to shift the appearance of England. It intends to throw open landscapes, especially across the south-east, to uncontrolled “build, build, build”. It will tip wealth yet further towards London and end any levelling-up of the north. It will abolish the ages-old distinction in British planning between built-up areas and the 70-80% of land that is still rural. It will leave poorer city centres to decline, result in villages doubling or trebling in size, and building dribbling from one town into the next. Fields and open spaces will disappear.
The white paper was slipped out with a minimum of publicity in August by Boris Johnson’s housing minister, Robert Jenrick. It was based on that latest Whitehall fad, an algorithm, prepared by various construction and development lobbyists and targeted at encouraging building where it was “most needed”, an outrageous euphemism for “most profitable”.
What has been dubbed the mutant algorithm has attracted the ire of the entire planning community and, more seriously for the government, of many Tory MPs who see their rural and semi-rural constituencies effectively being decontrolled. The unpublished algorithm – or is it a formula? – confuses housing need with demand reflected in price. Local planning authorities are told to zone some areas for “protection” – national parks, green belts and “outstanding” natural beauty areas – but elsewhere land is to be left free for building, with no need for specific planning permission. Planners expect that, among other results, this will put the overwhelming majority of farmland “into play”. One told me: “It puts every meadow under a death sentence.” No other modern country has decontrolled its land use to this degree.
As for the levelling-down of the north, the policy is little short of sensational. It reportedly requires housebuilding in Newcastle to fall by 66%, Manchester by 37% and the north-east generally by 28%. In the south-east outside London, development would rise by 57%, and in Kensington the algorithm reportedly posits a ludicrous 633%. Building round Cotswold villages is required almost to double.
The Local Government Association has professed itself baffled that Jenrick should so “seriously jeopardise levelling up”. The Royal Institute of British Architects predicts that the end of planning permissions will lead to “the next generation of slum housing”. The countryside charity CPRE could not see the point of cutting carbon emissions while directing housebuilding to new settlements reliant on cars, requiring “a massive loss of countryside”. The policy amounted to “build and be damned”. The planning lawyer and former supreme court judge Lord Carnwath has written to Jenrick protesting the document’s “levelling the foundations” of English planning, while “not beginning to make the case … for the disruption caused”.
The boundary between landscape conservation and nimbyism has always been hard to draw, but it is vividly illustrated in the catalogue of ministerial hypocrisy on planning. As prime minister, Johnson has told his own constituency it “needs” 446 new houses, while as MP he has objected to a scheme for 514. He now intends to remove his liberty to object. Meanwhile the home secretary, Priti Patel, has objected to 225 houses in her constituency, defence secretary Ben Wallace to 210 in his and the Cabinet Office’s Michael Gove to 44 in his.
One of Johnson’s many glib promises is to build 300,000 houses a year. This figure snatched from the air seems vaguely related to household formation, immigration and price, the latter two of which are now falling. The policy has nothing to say on vacancy rates, security of tenure, or the absurd VAT tax for new building but not for house conversion and downsizing. It has nothing to say on the million unused planning permissions or on the regular claims that London alone has brownfield land for another million people – planned homes waiting to be built. As for England’s 280,000 homeless people currently in urgent need of social housing, forget it. In other words, this is government modelling at its dumbest.
At the time of the 2012 Olympics, the English countryside ranked in polls as one of the things people most prized about England. Johnson and Jenrick do not care for this view. Those holding it are to be stripped of any control over the countryside, in deference to Whitehall and its Tory-donating developers.
Land-use decisions cannot be quantified. A good planner – a near defunct profession in England – is charged with enacting Alexander Pope’s maxim that we should “Consult the genius of the place in all”. Democracy awards this consultation to the community, not to wealth. How communities shape and develop their neighbourhoods is the most sensitive of political decisions. It is also one of the few remaining areas of local democratic discretion in England.
The reality is that Johnson’s targets and Jenrick’s models are meant to please the volume builders of rural executive estates. They do not care how land is curated, countryside protected and the north-south balance adjusted. They mock the idea that communities should “take back control” of their most precious resource, land. Fifty years ago, Britain had an admired global reputation for town and country planning. As in so many branches of our government, that reputation is collapsing.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist