The Labour government that was in power until 2010 had set in place a system through which (non-elected) regional bodies (except for London) developed Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS). These had to follow policies set by central government, but in broad terms the RSS tried to take an overview of needs over a 20 year period for housing, employment, environment and landscape conservation, transport, waste disposal etc. The RSS in particular assessed how much new housing was needed in each local authority within their region.

Not In My Back Yard

Again speaking in generalised terms, the south-east of the country has been under great development pressure, fuelled by the wealth and job opportunities provided by London as a global city whose role has been actively enhanced by UK government investments, e.g. in support of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Thus in the south-east regional strategies determined that a lot of new houses were needed. However, many of the councils in the region bitterly opposed the idea that they should allow new housing to be built on green fields alongside leafy lanes near pretty villages – or indeed just about anywhere else in their area. In doing this the elected local politicians were reflecting the views of their constituents who typically had paid a lot of money for their houses and did not want to see the amenity of their town eroded by more new development: Not In My Back Yard!

Politically, most of those local politicians were Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. So, when a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government came into power in May 2010 one of the first statements they issued was that the RSS would be abolished and there was no need for “top down” imposition of housing targets.  Instead power would be given to the local authorities to decide how many houses were needed in their area and where to allow them to be built.


It is easier to change plans than to change the housing market. The RSS could be consigned to history, but the need for houses remains. Furthermore, the UK Finance Ministry, called the Treasury, has long favoured a large measure of de-regulation of the land development process. For at least 40 years it has argued that planning is over-restrictive, and undermines the working of the free market which, if left to itself, would produce the right number of houses in the places where people want to live.

The chronic crash of the housing market that was so much a cause and consequence of the financial crash in 2007-8 might have been expected to prompt some re-thinks. However, that has not happened. Despite vast areas of new housing lying empty in Ireland, for example – a country with much looser regulation of development than England – free market economists in the Treasury have clung to their faith.


So it came to pass that the government began to speak with two tongues about planning. On the one hand, decisions would be decentralised and local councils would be able to decide for themselves how much housing to allow. On the other hand, the UK needs growth to restore government revenues and so there should be a positive stance towards approving new development. Maybe I should add that the Conservative party has been given millions of pounds in voluntary donations by property developers.

Just as people were heading off for their summer holidays, the government produced a draft statement of the national policies for planning in England.  Consultation on the draft ends on 17 October. Once people got back from holiday last month, the conflicts began in earnest. The Draft stressed planning for growth, albeit as the Minister wrote “sustainable development is about positive growth – making economic, environmental and social progress for this and future generations.” Well, of course it is, but you don’t need an expensive lawyer to argue the case for just about any form of development meeting those criteria.

Unlikely adversaries

The campaign against the government’s changes to the planning system has been led by organisations such as the National Trust (a membership organisation that looks after many beautiful historic houses and gardens); the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (a long-established campaigning body) and the Countryside Alliance (which campaigned against the “urban bias” of the previous Labour government).  Conservative members of parliament from affluent rural English constituencies are unhappy too.

Most notably perhaps, the Daily Telegraph has strongly opposed the government. The Daily Telegraph is a very traditional Conservative-supporting newspaper. It is running a “Hands off Our Land” campaign. Faced with a sense of hysteria on all sides of the argument, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the independent professional body representing 23,000 planners has called for a more reasoned debate.

Maybe the English have something to learn from our Scandinavian and Baltic friends who seem to be able to find enough land for new housing.

For more interesting stories from Cliff Hague please visit his new "World View" blog on  also accessible from Or follow Cliff and ICN on twitter.