Wednesday, 9 June 2010


The coalition's latest policy announcement to give councils more powers to stop developers from using gardens as 'brownfield' sites to build housing is a good one. The idea that gardens are somehow 'brownfield' was a Labour initiative to encourage more house building - a Good Thing - but once again New Labour had the right principles but the wrong ideas.

LD policy was all for giving more control over planning decisions to local councils so this is yet another victory for LD principles. However, the acid test of the move to remove imposed housing targets will be whether in five years' time new housing development has continued or stopped. My guess is that there will be numerous areas in the south east where we will see an almost complete halt in development as a result of such changes but other authorities should provide innovative leads on future plans. I would be willing to bet that those authorities will in the main be yellow in hue given the proud record of many LD authorities in pushing through new, high quality housing. Nay sayers might look at the Vale of White Horse in Oxfordshire and South Shropshire for two clear examples of such LD councils which have delivered hundreds of new affordable houses in recent years in the teeth of government indifference.

But oh dear, this morning on the Today programme, the architect of the 'brownfield' plan, John Prescott, went up against Tory millionaire Parliamentary seat buyer and [apparently former] non-dom Zac Goldsmith. Lest anyone think that LDs have gone soft in coalition can I express my total contempt for this example of David Cameron's new Conservative Party. I have always had a certain regard for John Prescott as you get what you pay for with him: overbearing, semi-literate, boorish but somehow normal in the weird world that is modern politics. As for Goldsmith, one syllable of that plummy voice is enough to have me reaching for the off switch but I held myself back. Alas, he did little to engage with rambling John Prescott and spoke rather antiseptically about various studies and statistics. This wasn't debate, it was a garden party.

My personal hatred of such Tory place people aside, my main concern with the changes announced to housing policy are that they are once again tinkering around the edges of what is a crucial element of our modern society: the need for high quality, affordable housing in places where people want to live and work. The planning system remains heavily weighted in favour of developers and people with the money to negotiate a way through it. I hope this new government will commit to looking at housing root and branch and provide the framework and incentives for local authorities to innovate and to give us the housing we need and deserve - not just lifeless estates with lines of Lego boxes on the edge of towns which encourage car use above all.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to see innovative new building styles after 200 years of the same old model? Wouldn't it be wonderful to see affordable housing built by popular local demand? Am I holding my breath?

What's the betting that in five years' time we will prety much be where we are now...

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