Mark this week well in your datebook, UK pollie watchers, for history may recall it as the one in which, in the green shires of England, David Cameron’s Con-Lib government condemned itself to a single term. The cause was the comprehensive new planning laws announced this week, the gist of which can be easily expressed — there ain’t none. The thousand-page planning laws have been reduced to, by some accounts, no more than 12 pages, to govern all land use in Britain.
The Tories deny this, but the trick is in a loophole — that, for any planning application, if a planning scheme for that area isn’t in place, then the application must be accepted by default. Since planning schemes are constantly being withdrawn, revised, etc, the whole process becomes a game of hopscotch — wait until the plan comes up for revision (by a compliant council), then whack in a scheme to cover the Costswalds with a spec suburb called “Glengarry Ponds” or somesuch.
The new laws were more or less dictated by property developers, who have run a huge campaign arguing that blocks on planning have slowed new building. But as Simon Jenkins and others have pointed out, there are currently a third of a million granted applications for spec build that haven’t been acted on — because the demand isn’t there. Nor are they keen to develop the huge numbers of brownfields sites in the junkyard formerly known as industrial Britain. What they really want are the green rolling hills around the feeder towns* of the south-east — piggybacking on existing social infrastructure, taking the views as amenity, essentially a series of free gifts.
That there is a horrendous lack of housing in Britain is without question — but what is required is bolder action and more planning to create dynamic and interesting cities, not the endless, low-density identikit Tudor-Tuscan gaak all the way to the Channel. That’s where this move may be an example of Cameroonian over-reach — for Britain, especially the south-eastern Tory heartland, is so densely populated that (unlike Australia or the middle US) people can’t help but notice and mind when spec building starts to crowd out their town (most of which have swathes of suburbs in any case). “Hands Off Our Land”, the front page of a broadsheet screamed today — but it wasn’t The Guardian, it was the Daily Torygraph, voice of the soon-to-be-paved over shires.
The paper, which doesn’t campaign, is running a huge campaign against the laws, fomenting a backbench revolt. Why? Because the British Conservative Party is neither the Republicans, nor the Liberal Party of Australia — it retains strong associations with the notion of land and landedness, arising from its battles with the Liberal Party in the 19th century. Such sentiments have lain dormant — but only because they were protected by disturbance by the famous 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, the Atlee government legislation that became a model for planning across the world, with its emphasis on zoning, green belts, etc.
The 1947 act was an expression of collectivism in its purest form, but Margaret Thatcher never tackled it — just as she left, substantially undisturbed, the BBC, the NHS and even British Rail — because she knew that her support in the party and the nation’s middle class was contingent on not advancing the individualist cause into these areas of life. Thatcherism wasn’t neoliberalism — it was a right-wing political movement working in the context of a society that had not yet been culturally or socially individualised and atomised as has now occurred.
Now that cultural revolution has occurred — a product of immense social and technological change, much of it caused by Thatcher’s changes, but a great deal of it a matter of mass historical drift. Now that life has been so thoroughly individualised, a fully fledged neoliberalism is possible in a country in that, until recently, people had seen themselves predominantly through their group — class, region — identity. In that framework, freedom can be reduced to the simple notion of choice.
Thus the Cameron government can present a plan that many think would cause chaos and ruination as part of his agenda of freedom — and yet still present it as a post-Thatcherite, post-political “commonsense” act. More exactly, this is the argument of the faction within the Cameron government pushing these changes — most particularly Eric Pickles, the forceful, earthy, OK hugely fat, supremo over all matters local.
And here is what is truly fascinating, for Pickles is a former Trotskyist — and more than a dilettante, a serious activist for some years. Like Thatcher’s mentor Sir Alfred Sherman — a one-time Stalinist — Pickles has transferred his politics from left to right because he thinks the latter will be a more effective vehicle for radical change. Nothing pisses him off more than the old shires’ Tories, with their National Trust memberships and village-green preservation societies, and the new planning laws are a war against them, for control of the Tories, as much as anything.
Pickles not only appears unconcerned about the opposition he gains from The Daily Telegraph, he welcomes it. Nor can he be seen as simply a member of the hard-Right — the shires Tories would, in many of their social attitudes, make Pickles look like, well, Trotsky. He is a symptom and prime mover in the fundamental process of political re-alignment of which the UK Tory party is the cutting edge in the west, the recombination of elements that make it impossible to apply a simple spectrum of “Rightness”. In Australia, the Coalition is wrestling with this — or failing to. In Britain, Pickles and his ilk will either crash through — or they will have raised an army against themselves, one that will return to a Labour party, which is unlikely to have developed a new idea of how to govern from the centre. Seriously, don’t f-ck with the shires.
*feeding into London, not full of men fattening up women