The power of slogans

July 28 2020
The power of slogans

Planning Matters, with Chris Gosling

WE live in a world of slogans. What was once the preserve of the advertisers is now just as much the preserve of politicians. They too have a message to sell. Sometimes slogans stay around, but mostly they are displaced by later efforts. One of the Prime Minister's recent efforts is "build, build, build". It could have been shorter, but it is a typically simple message. It is the mantra that will supposedly carry us out of the deepening financial worries of these strange times and as far as it goes, that is fine. However its simplicity begs some questions. The PM has stepped in to provide his own answers.

The message is essentially the same as that of the coalition government in 2010. Construction benefits the economy, not just through its own direct efforts but its fourfold positive impact on the industries that support it. Of course, in 2010 this mantra went hand-in-hand with austerity, which was then in the early stages of hollowing out planning departments across the country. Planners were expected to somehow do more with less, to quote a slogan of those times. Since then resources have diminished further.

Fast forward a few years, and there was much focus on why the planning system apparently wasn't delivering. Reports commissioned by the government concluded that planners up and down the land were doing their best to allow and enable housing development. The spotlight was turned on the houses and flats that had been approved but weren't being built, as the volume housebuilders tended to sit on their permissions and build at the time when their profit was greatest. This is not outside of the rules and the change required to ensure that the "homes the country needs" (another slogan) were built at the time of need would have been likely to lead to less building.

As a result, the requirement remains to start work on site within three years of the permission and there is usually no obligation to finish by any further deadline. This, and other factors, resulted in 280,000 homes with planning permission never being built between 2011 and 2016, according to Shelter.

Back up to date, and in comes the latest slogan, alongside a promise to overhaul the planning system, starting in September. To mark this intention, last month the PM decided to indulge in a spot of planner-bashing. We learned that the planning system was over-bureaucratic, cumbersome and appalling, among other adjectives. Not exactly the most morale-boosting way to treat an under-funded, under-staffed profession, tasked with enabling the recovery from the deepest recession ever known. Although there was a lack of detail in the PM's speech, he did manage to accuse planners of "newt-counting", overlooking the legal obligation to ensure the protection of safeguarded species is properly considered. This suggests that perhaps the government's green aims and carbon-neutral future will not be such a priority when it comes to overhauling planning.

I do not want to suggest that the government has been slow to act, because apparently that is the preserve of planners. The government amended their legislation last month to ensure that in the conversion of office buildings, for which they had removed the requirement of planning permission, one of the criteria is now that windows have to be provided for the flats created. That story blew up in July 2019 when flats were created without windows in Watford. Cumbersome, over-bureaucratic and appalling? I couldn't possibly comment.