If you really want to divide the Conservative Party, forget about Europe. Try granting householders the unfettered right to build themselves a conservatory, garden shed, or whatever else takes their fancy.
In the brave new deregulatory world inhabited by – say – George Osborne, it seemed a good idea to waive tedious council planning restrictions to allow 26ft extensions to sprout randomly across the country, reinforcing property owners’ rights and – allegedly – boosting the building industry.
Except that MPs rightly calculate that for every homeowner thus freed from bureaucratic constraints, there are at least couple of neighbours appalled at having to look at whatever excrescence is erected next door. Today’s debate on the Government’s latest planning wheeze – voted down in a Tory Lords amendment – had several novel aspects.
Faced with a backbench rebellion, the Communities and Local Government minister Eric Pickles announced a climbdown without actually saying what it was. He was, he explained, “aggrieved, distressed” by the concerns expressed.
He was sure that “even at this late hour we can actually establish a broad consensus”. He just needed a little more time to come up with something better.
But some dissidents were unconvinced. Cheryl Gillan, whom David Cameron must be wondering if it was wise to sack as Welsh Secretary, declared; “I am afraid we are not going to believe what you say at that despatch box until we see it in black and white.”
Pickles’ oddly conversational, laid-back, parliamentary style often makes it difficult to work out when he is being ironic. When Stewart Jackson, who rebelled on the issue like his fellow Tory Zac Goldsmith, said that local government was like a “curate’s egg”, Pickles excelled himself, declaring that on the contrary it was an “omelette of happiness and consensus”.
Addressing the point that only 10 per cent of planning applications by homeowners are rejected, Clive Betts, Labour chairman of the relevant select committee, said this took no account of “those that are never submitted for planning permission because they are so awful that people know they would be turned down”.
Suddenly we understood. Only our underappreciated town halls stand in the way of an epidemic of 9ft-high, eight metre square castles patrolled by garden gnomes.