The fight to ‘Keep in Control’
More than 100 years ago WB Yeats coined the phrase “the centre cannot hold”. His poem, The Second Coming was written just after the carnage of World War One, during the 1918-19 flu pandemic, and amidst the brutal Irish Civil War for independence. Yeats was writing at a time when central authority was being overwhelmed and just after his wife had almost died from the deadly virus.
Is it too dramatic to see a message here for our current Government, which seems to find itself buffeted on all sides and struggling to keep control?
The Johnson Administration has a radical agenda. Even without a global pandemic, it would be hugely ambitious to honour Brexit and steer the UK out of the EU, whilst also committing to a ‘levelling up’ agenda and rebalancing the economy to address the new ‘Blue Wall’ Tories in the North.
Radicalism at the heart of Government often translates into trying to exert central control and the the empowering of ideological advisors in No10 and the Cabinet Office, together with the steady ‘retirements’ of long-standing Permanent Secretaries, all point to a Government which is focussed on control. But all the evidence of recent months is that we are witnessing the failings of the attempted revolution at the heart of Whitehall, as they battle on all fronts.
This is partly because the Johnson Government is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. It has been so personally identified with Boris and his model of ‘taking back control’ that it has crowded out the talents of so many others. It is no secret that the Conservative backbenches are packed with experience, but when loyalty to the PM overrides ability, or having a wider constituency in the party, you seriously denude the Government of talent, just when you most need it.
The tensions facing this Government also reflect an oft-ignored aspect of the Brexit vote ‘to leave’; that it could be argued as a vote against decades of overcentralised rule from Whitehall, stifling local communities as it was against Brussels.
In the midst of all this, the ‘radicals’ have chosen to set out their stall by reshaping the local state through three key reforms.
Firstly, they are proposing a new algorithm to change the way housing targets for local areas are calculated. Provoking a backlash around greenfield development in the Tory shires.
Secondly, they want to step up the pace of local government restructuring and English devolution. Again a ‘blue-rag’ that inflames the Tory heartlands.
Finally, they promise a major reform of the Planning system. Although inspired by the laudable aim of reducing barriers to development and encouraging housebuilding; the White Paper’s suggestion of a hybrid-zoning approach and front-loading consultation and democratic oversight to a revised Local Plan process is toxic stuff for a Party rooted in the shires.
Can the centre hold?
Early skirmishes suggest that the centre may not hold, nor the radicals prevail.
The push for more unitary councils has already been punted back into 2021, and it is hard to see where the political capital will come from to refloat this agenda whilst local councils are still dealing with the pandemic. Perhaps the experience of watching Sturgeon, Drakeford and Burnham carve out new platforms amidst the Covid lockdown wrangling, will make even No 10 radicals pause for thought over devolution.
The ‘algorithm’ will be harder to postpone as the issue of housing numbers is a problem that won’t go away. But whilst the development community chews over the technical issues, the proposed formula has created such a storm of protest, the politics is very clear. If you seek to remove the duty to cooperate, eschew regional spatial planning and ignore the Green Belt question, whilst also targeting “affordability” in setting local housing numbers; don’t be surprised when those most affected in the leafy Shires hit back hard.
As an aside how did a Government attempting to rebalance in favour of the North come up with such a formula? Did no one within the trusted circle of advisors not spot the contradictions implicit in this approach?
So, what of the Planning Reforms and what are the implications ahead for the development community? The Government will bring forward legislation to reform the planning system. Expect lots of worthy clarity on digital plan-making and potentially many sensible reforms around the Local Plan process and land-use allocations. Perhaps a worthwhile simplification of levies and no doubt there will be front-loading of digital consultation and lots of rhetoric around improving efficiency and removing delays.
Political realities mean that MHCLG will have to lick their wounds and find reforms that not only work but can be implemented at a time of unparalleled national crisis. There is a time to be radical, a time to be pragmatic and a time to retreat.
The Prime-Minister may come to realise that today the centre cannot hold, that ‘radical’ reforms will unleash years of disruption in the planning system and may actually delay housing delivery. Common sense may dictate the need to ‘walk back the radicalism’, regroup and live to fight another day.
This article first appeared in Housebuilder Magazine’s November edition. You can view it here.