The consultation launched yesterday on reforms to the planning system has already attracted criticism: RIBA, Shelter and the TCPA, have all condemned the plans which they think will lead to poorer quality homes and less affordable housing. Unsurprisingly, the government has rejected these concerns, arguing that the proposed reforms will fast track house building and put design and quality at the heart of the process.
On an initial look these plans seem to aim at the wrong target; ‘planning red tape’ and ‘council bureaucracy’ are convenient scapegoats, but they’re really not the obstacles to housebuilding. As the LGA has pointed out there are a million unbuilt homes that already have planning permission. But it’s easier to point the finger at councils than to engage with the underlying structural and economic conditions.
What’s most depressing, however, is the insight these plans give us into the government’s view of local authorities: essentially an irritant, or a blockage, to be circumvented.
If all you are interested in is a more efficient roll out of central government policy then these sorts of proposals might just make sense, but if you care about local democracy and local government as a vehicle for communities to shape the places they live in, then they really don’t.
We’ve seen a similar disregard for local government in the handling of the pandemic: the delay in bringing local public health teams on board, the refusal to share data, the exclusion of local government from strategic decision making and the imposition of local lockdown measures across fairly clunky footprints without consulting or informing the local authorities concerned.
It’s part of a pattern of centralisation and, if grumbling from the civil service and the parliamentary conservative party is to be believed, centralisation not just to Whitehall or to Westminster, or even to the Cabinet, but to a small group around the Prime Minister.
That wouldn’t matter so much, perhaps, if these centralised systems worked spectacularly well. But they don’t and so we now see councils introducing their own track and trace systems and moving towards their own lock downs ahead of government intervention.
And that’s the point of course, localism is a democratic good, but it’s also a practical one. It’s hard, often impossible, to deliver complex, interconnected services from a distant centre and that’s as true of building houses as it is of tracking infection.
Why do we not recognise this? Why doesn’t government trust councils? Downing Street is full of clever people, but one of the traps of cleverness is to believe that other people are not clever enough. In life, in business, but especially in government, that is a dangerous delusion.