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Never mind the facts, let's talk 'absolute twaddle'

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LGC’s essential daily commentary 

In normal times the chair of the Local Government Association dismissing the views of the chief secretary to the Treasury as “absolute twaddle” would be almost unthinkable, especially with a spending review just round the corner that will be make or break for the sector.

Of course, Lord Porter is nearing the end of his final term as LGA chair so perhaps he is just demob happy. More likely he is expressing the widespread frustration within the sector that the planning system continues to be blamed for the country’s failure to build enough homes, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

The offending comment from Liz Truss, who not to long ago spoke at Smith Square, was a Tweet last night endorsing the view of Rico Wojtulewicz, senior policy advisor at the House Builders Association that the housing crisis would not be solved without further reform to the planning system and, crucially, making it easier to build on small sites.

In an article for the Politics Home website Mr Wojtulewicz, who was recently unsuccessful in his attempt to get elected to Brighton & Hove City Council for the Tories, rails against what he views as the inadequacy of the small sites register, blaming council lobbying for reducing the requirement for small sites in local plans from 20% to 10%.

Ms Truss tweeted: “Spot on. We need a flexible, simpler planning system that enables small sites to be developed and doesn’t tie up builders in red-tape. #itsthesupplyside”.

In response Lord Porter declared: “Absolute twaddle. The housing crisis is caused by Treasury and the banks not planning policy. There are over 470,000 live planning permissions on the books already. We need more people to be able to access cash, not bits of land with an increased value.”

Mr Wojtulewicz does concede there are over 400,000 planning permissions but claims they are not being built out because they are “not full planning permissions and they are either unviable, due to landowners underestimating costs, or stuck because of outstanding pre-commencement conditions and negotiable contributions such as section 106 agreements”.

Mr Wojtulewicz’s does not appear to consider that planners might have a legitimate role in minimising the impact of development on the existing community before, during and after the build.

Sir Oliver Letwin’s review for government last year was supposed to answer the question of whether the planning system or land banking by developers was to blame for low build out rates.

While stopping short of explicitly blaming the latter, Sir Oliver, the Conservative MP for West Dorset and a former cabinet minister, said the “homogeneity” of new build homes was at the root of the problem as this was making them less desirable purchases and so slowing developers build out rates. His solution was more planning not less.

Sadly, as last night’s exchange demonstrates, Sir Oliver’s report has not put the argument to bed for the Conservative party. In fact it is another issue on which the party is split with the free marketers keen to see abolition of all but the bare minimum of their despised red tape while, as Lord Porter noted recently after the party’s disastrous local election results, many members and indeed voters welcome restrictions on development.

The facts never seem to get in the way of a good argument these days.

Sarah Calkin, deputy editor

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