Save the wheat fields: housing and planning under the new Government

Theresa May was much mocked during the election campaign for her claim that the ‘naughtiest thing she had ever done’ was to run through a field of wheat as a child. Ironically, her appointments to the DCLG suggest that fields of wheat – along with any other green fields – are going to perfectly safe under the new Government.

In the main, Theresa May’s appointments point to a basic level of consistency on housing and planning matters. Sajid Javid MP remains as Secretary of State at the DCLG, and Gavin Barwell, the main architect of the Housing White Paper, has been appointed Theresa May’s Chief of Staff – a role in which he is likely to be an important bridge between the Prime Minister and her MPs.

But, to paraphrase LBJ, the arithmetic is everything – and the main driver for policy on housing, as on every issue which will come before this Hung Parliament, will be how it affects the Government’s ability to operate. With the Tories needing every vote they can get in the Commons, their backbenchers will have more power over specific issues.

We’ve already seen what this can mean for planning – it’s widely understood that one of the reasons for the delay to the Housing White Paper was due to Tory nerves around the Article 50 vote.  We can therefore expect even firmer guarantees on the Green Belt, and possibly even more stick for developers.

This appears to be borne out in the appointment of Alok Sharma, the MP for Reading West, as the new Minister for Housing and Planning. Previously a junior minister in the FCO, Mr Sharma has been a staunch opponent of ‘unsustainable development’ on his patch, and was an early advocate of Localism. Power already appears to be with those Conservatives with strong views of where it’s appropriate to build new homes.

In practice, the need to keep backbenchers happy may simply have the effect of driving potentially tricky issues like planning further down the Government’s agenda – particularly when competing with high profile issues like Brexit. The fact that it took until late on Tuesday for Mr Sharma’s appointment to be announced suggests this may already be happening.

All in all, then, this is a Government with a weaker hand on housing and planning policy. Those fields of wheat are safe.

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