Eric Pickles did manage to avert a defeat in the Commons on plans to let homeowners build extensions and conservatories without planning permission, but it’s worth asking how on earth the government managed to get in the position where its backbench was so worked up on a policy like this in the first place?
The amendment, tabled by Lord True and approved by peers – would have allowed councils to opt out of the new freedoms. And 18 Tory MPs – John Baron, Andrew Bingham, Bob Blackman, Tracey Crouch, Nick de Bois, Zac Goldsmith, Philip Hollobone, Stewart Jackson, Julian Lewis, Anne Main, Caroline Nokes, Matthew Offord, Mark Pawsey, Sir John Stanley and Chris White – and nine Lib Dems – Annette Brooke, Paul Burstow, Andrew George, Martin Horwood, Greg Mulholland, John Pugh, Adrian Sanders and David Ward – rebelled against the government to support the amendment. The Coalition’s majority was cut to 27.
Planning Minister Nick Boles spent a great deal of time and effort trying to assuage colleagues’ fears about this: he was, in the words of one person he’d tried to talk around to the idea ‘very stubborn’. But it’s curious, because this plan really has nothing to do with the sort of planning reform that he preaches, one where local people are kept on side with a focus on the quality of developments. As Zac Goldsmith argued earlier, the policy would have been fine had it allowed developments that were unopposed to go ahead without planning permission, but this pitches local person against local person and does nothing to foster warm and tingly feelings about new development in a community.
The problem with the way the government approaches planning reform is that it likes to dip its toes into many different pools of water without committing to any: one day it is keen on a localist agenda, on another it is happy to force development through using the Planning Inspectorate.
This isn’t just a way of achieving nothing, it’s also a way of upsetting backbenchers. There’s nothing an MP who already suspects they are treated simply as lobby fodder hates more than being mucked around on something. At least on education, no matter how controversial it is, and no matter how many times the teaching unions get their placards out, MPs know that the government is generally headed in the same direction. When it comes to planning, ministers tend to spew out ideas, and then announce policies that don’t fit with them. And all along, there’s a possibility that the very painful but not particularly radical planning reforms that the government pushed through in the NPPF haven’t worked and more needs to be done. It’s difficult for an MP to know what to argue for: liberalisation of planning laws, forcing development on nimbys, or greater flow of credit. And of course this confusion means that everyone is angry with some aspect of planning reform.