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30/06/2014

A little more bite, and a little less bark

Words:
Dog chewing rope

Your correspondent is somewhat hesitant to agree with business secretary Vince Cable. Although he might enjoy the sobriquet of the only prophet to predict the last recession, as a minister he has – to put it politely – been less surefooted.

Huw MorrisLest we forget, the taxpayer was left shortchanged to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds by the sell-off of Royal Mail, which very much happened on his watch. Shame he did not foresee that one.

Cable was back on safer ground lately with his fears for the economy’s future. The country probably needs to build 300,000 homes a year, he argues, when it is only building 120-130,000. 

Like it or lump it, an orgy of credit on the never-never has left the UK among the most indebted countries on the planet.

And the answer to this has been yet another debt binge. We are very much borrowing for growth instead of building for it.

"The National Planning Policy Framwork has led to an increase in development, but it is palpably not keeping up with demand"

Although the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has led to an increase in development, it is palpably not keeping up with demand. To mix metaphors, while it might have led to a gear change, it is hardly full steam ahead. The politicians are falling over themselves to agree that the country needs more homes; they all back garden cities, but they don’t necessarily know what this kind of development entails. A cursory glance at the government’s recent prospectus for new towns shows its thinking has some way to go on this, never mind the execution.

Which takes us back to national planning. Even with the three new settlements envisaged in the prospectus, such development must take place within a national context rather than a regional or sub-regional one. The NPPF is precisely what it says on the tin – a framework, but not a plan. 

While they are dwindling by the week, there are still some optimists who cite the statutory duty to co-operate. On the evidence of the past couple of years, this should more realistically be renamed the “duty to talk”. 

And here’s the nub of the problem; there is a lot of talk, but very little actual dialogue. We may start getting somewhere when it becomes a “duty to listen and act”. Or as Elvis Presley put it: “A little less conversation, a little more action, please.”

Now it will be a very optimistic gambler indeed to bet on whether a government will look at the scale of development the country needs – and the jobs and infrastructure that goes with it – and conclude that maybe, just maybe, we need a national plan. But this cuts to the heart of the problem of delivering any kind of plan at whatever level. While the case for a national plan might be obvious, how long would we have to wait for one?

Huw Morris is consultant editor of The Planner

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