Tony Travers on why Parliament had to stop Eric Pickles’ cherished reform dead in its tracks
It was never very likely that reducing planning restrictions on home extensions would make much difference to the economy, though the idea was put forward as part of the government’s plans to liberalise the process of generating new construction.
On the other hand, it was also implausible that the policy was going to wreck towns and cities. Yet Parliament has stopped Eric Pickles’ cherished reform in its tracks.
Mr Pickles had said householders could sue councils that blocked extensions built in gardens. Yet last week, it was a very different story, with the secretary of state suing for peace, rather than in the courts. Those who want to extend their homes will have to continue to apply to the council, while neighbours will still be able to object to extensions. Mr Pickles was quoted as saying of the reformed scheme: “Neighbours’ amenity is protected, with the council and councillors acting as independent arbiters.”
This reversal shows how powerful the Mail and Telegraph can be in opposing planning reforms. The Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Trust are also hugely effective in blocking ministerial efforts to modify the planning system.
Ministers’ populist attack on councils has met its match in the massed ranks of rural lobby groups and the media’s support of householders’ rights to light. Far from being town hall tyrants, councils have become the heroes of the press. There is little support for new or extended buildings which threaten residents’ views, light or fields.
The only way to kick-start construction and build new homes at scale is by concentrating activity in existing towns and cities. Ministers would be better off using their limited political capital to shift resources into older cities to make them more desirable for residents and developers. Such a move would make it more attractive for people to stay in existing urban areas.
No government will assent to much new building on green land: there is not the political confidence in Parliament to defeat those opposed to such a move. As the population and the economy grow, we must prepare for more densely populated cities and redistribute public money to make them liveable. There is no alternative.
Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics