Eric Pickles did not have an easy task in the Commons yesterday. The Communities Secretary was charged with defending the Government’s planning proposals not only against the Opposition but also against a cadre of Coalition naysayers. In the end, he won the vote – but by a slim margin, and only with the promise of a “revised approach”. Even then, several Tories rebelled.
According to its proponents, a three-year easing of the planning rules for residential extensions will be a boon for “aspirational families”, will lift Britain’s flagging construction sector, and will be a much-needed boost for retailers of carpets, furniture and the like. “Getting the planners off our backs”, as the Prime Minister puts it, might look good on paper. What is being overlooked, though, is that planners are – when it comes to domestic extensions, at least – on our backs for good reason. Loosen the restrictions and the result will be costly and antagonistic neighbourly disputes.
Even more importantly, the plan is tilting at the wrong target. True, the construction industry is suffering. But rather than tinker at the edges with a temporary burst of plus-sized conservatory-building, the Government should focus on tackling our acute housing crisis.
Although Britain needs an extra 250,000 homes every year to meet growing demand, fewer than 100,000 are being built. Why? Because the handful of large private developers have little incentive to do so and investment in social housing is paltry. The result is sky-high prices, both for buying and renting. Yet instead of channelling what money there is into building – to ease the bottleneck and help the economy – the Chancellor is underwriting cheap mortgages and fuelling ever more demand.
Mr Pickles, meanwhile, must make the empty argument that a few more, larger extensions will do the trick. That Coalition rebels have now forced compromise is welcome. But, with no more – so far – than a ministerial promise to go on, it is still too soon to celebrate.