Blair and Brown Show Threatens Our Countryside
There is a theory that we elect politicians mainly for their
entertainment value. If so, we have
certainly had our money’s worth over the past few weeks. The Tony and Gordon show, John – keep the
spare Jag –
Ten years ago
Take a walk around the centre of
Whilst waiting for a vacancy next door, Gordon Brown has been extending his influence beyond the remit of his own department. In 2003 he appointed an economist, Kate Barker, to examine and recommend far-reaching changes to the planning system. A friend of mine knows a young graduate appointed to work for the Barker committee who admitted her trepidation on taking the job, as she knew nothing about planning. Barker herself understands the economics of the housing market but has never worked in, and has no qualifications in planning, which was probably deliberate – a bit like appointing Jeremy Clarkson to investigate the rail system.
The lack of understanding is apparent in the first Barker report of 2004. Amongst its more extreme recommendations was one to allocate huge swathes of open countryside as buffer zones. Developers could submit planning applications to build anywhere in these zones, at any time. “Market forces” would determine whether each application was accepted or rejected.
This recommendation was not entirely adopted, but the draft planning
policy on housing published in December would require authorities to allocate
Having won half the battle on housing, Barker’s second
inquiry is now looking into land use.
Fifteen subtly loaded questions betray what the committee is already
expecting to recommend: further weakening of controls on building outside of
towns and cities. Many in the planning
profession sense behind these moves an attack on their existence. The timing may be coincidental but free-market
think tank the Adam Smith Institute recently published a report calling for the
whole planning system to be scrapped. A
speaker from another think tank, who addressed the Devon Rural Futures
Conference last month made a similar point – arguing that people should be free
to build on
Abolishing planning officers, like abolishing traffic
wardens, may sound like a good idea, until you consider what life would be like
without them. Planning in the
Another consequence of this dispersal was a total absence of public transport – tricky if you live in a hurricane zone without a car! Things, we may hope, will never reach such a point over here, but the orthodox economists who rule the Treasury, given a free hand, would like to move us in that direction.
From a strong department with responsibility for planning, we might expect some resistance. First signs from the new Department for Communities and Local Government are not encouraging. Ruth Kelly, demoted from Education, assumes a hotch-potch of wider responsibilities than Prescott, her predecessor, with representation in the cabinet reduced from two seats to one.
In its submission to Barker, the Royal Town Planning Institute betrays the weariness of a profession misunderstood. “If spatial planning did not exist”, they argue, “the market would have to invent it”. Like social workers, planners incur public wrath because they mediate between conflicting interests: damned when they do intervene and damned when they don’t. But effective planning is an essential element of a civilised society, an absolute necessity in a country as densely populated as ours.
John Prescott may be remembered more for his departure than his time in office, but if Labour’s infighting allows the Treasury’s hatchet squad to reverse his main achievement, we may all have cause to regret his passing.