Reform the people, not just the planning - by Rupert Bates


Friday 4th May 2012

John Hitchcox, chairman of Yoo

I went to the pub the other day and spoke to a local councillor. We talked planning. I did not tell him what I write about for fear of villagers marching on my house with torches, pitchforks and makeshift gallows.

I don't remember much. Sussex ales tend to do that to me. But what I do recall is that the councillor, a very successful local businessman, said it doesn't matter what central government legislates, prescribes, insists, suggests, or asks nicely for when it comes to delivering more homes.

"We only use bricks and mortar for one thing - to build the Nimby walls still higher," he said drolly. Or something like that.

Rural councillors think economic stimulus is a risqué parlour game. They know about the imperative of driving growth in their own businesses, yet when it comes to heading home from a productive day at the office, changing into cords and a cravat to attend a parish meeting, the shutters, probably wisteria-clad, come down and the sign says: ‘No room for incomers - especially ones on low incomes.'

Parish councils may be down the decision-making food chain, but with real vision can deliver their recipes for sustainable growth, using local produce, to the planning authorities.

This is a random, scattergun attack on local councils and I would love to hear from councillors resolutely committed to build, build, build where new homes are needed and to hell with the howls of protest from their neighbours and constituents. No, thought not.

"Ward councils are not interested in the economy. They care more about protecting their own seats," says John Hitchcox (pictured), chairman of Yoo, the global property company behind The Lakes in the Cotswolds, a development that took 10 years to get planning.

"It's going to be very hard to ever get a truly objective opinion towards development. The reality is that the small lobbies will always have much more power locally. That's why it's essential we have clear guidance that sets out a mandate for growth and ends the massive waste and needless bureaucracy currently clogging up the system."

Stewart Baseley, as befits the executive chairman of the HBF, puts it in more measured terms. "The real test remains the extent to which local authorities are prepared to embrace the NPPF and take care of properly planning for housing."

It will never happen. Hell will have frozen over, or I will have joined the National Trust, before local councillors embrace planning proactively, getting on the front foot to fashion the future of the areas they are meant to represent. What on earth is wrong with the default being yes when it comes to sustainable development?

Has any councillor stood up and said: "The NPPF affords us a glorious opportunity to shape our local community and provide the mix of housing to meet demand, enhance social cohesion, create jobs and drive economic growth." No, thought not.

We have architect George Clarke, Channel 4's Restoration Man appointed to champion bringing empty homes back into use; Berkeley's Tony Pidgley heads a team unlocking the release of more public sector land for housing and the search has started to find a new chief construction adviser to replace Paul Morrell who stands down in November.

These positions are all very laudable and necessary, but I propose a new one. A ‘Knocking Councillors' Heads Together' czar, reminding them by law they must draw up local plans.

It is scandalous that so many have not done so. And yet when the government politely suggests that they ought to get on with it, or they'll get on with it for them, the anti-development lobby cries ‘Bulldozer alert! Put down your dogs for they will never go walkies again,' all the while pretending to be poor disenfranchised peasants in the path of housebuilders state-driven tanks, when they themselves are the heavy artillery, far better funded and organized than any bunch of developers.

It's not surprising. They have every homeowner in the country - in decent accommodation anyway - on their side.

The NPPF has been called an abuse of local democracy. No. Local democracy in the field of planning is an abuse, or at least a neglect.

The Framework has its flaws and cynicism is always a useful ally when dealing with any government policy. But while I'm sure local councillors are best equipped to ensure the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations go off on the village green without a Health & Safety breach, they are not best equipped to rule on new housing.

It is not incompetence or ignorance, but the adversarial nature of planning that pits Beelzebub the builder against the village conservation spinsters Flora and Fauna. The councillor who backs the builder is electoral toast.

Nimbyism is not a political party; nor a state of mind. It is human nature. Planning reform needs to start with the people not the policies. And no, I have no idea.

Rupert Bates is editorial director of and Show House magazine.