Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, made a fascinating speech to the Resolution Foundation yesterday. Most widely picked up on has been her assertion that the government needs to get to grip with housing numbers by turning NIMBYs into YIMBYs.
But most revealing of all – in what was an engagingly open performance – was Ms Truss’ assault on the Town and Country Planning Act (TCPA) 1947, which she attacked as the creation of Nye Bevan, the reddest of politicians.
Of course, the planning reforms of the Attlee government were actually steered through by Lewis Silkin: Nye had his hands full with the gold he was feeding to the British Medical Association. But what was most revealing about the characterisation was its fundamental conception of planning laws as being a socialist restriction on the free market, the assumption that, in effect, planning is to housing as nationalisation is to industry – a constraint on freedom.
In fact, the Attlee government’s land reforms were, like its other great achievements – the NHS and the welfare state – a product of deep reflection and nonpartisan conclusion. The underlying principles of the TCPA 1947 drew from work commissioned by Chamberlain’s government in the late 1930s, and published during the war.
First among these was the Barlow Commission, whose formal title was “The Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population”. It addressed pressing urban issues: both the sprawl of London, through the 1930s houses that line the arterial roads, and the industrial dereliction of the north. A key moment in the New Towns movement, it also gave some intellectual backbone to the notion of a planned approach to development.
It was followed up by the Scott report into land use, Uthwatt into land value, and Reith into New Towns. Far from the socialism “red in tooth and claw” that the Chief Secretary believes underpins planning, this work was started by a Conservative government, continued by a Coalition government and legislated for by a Labour government.
The kind explanation here would be that Ms Truss should simply read more history. But the truth is probably that she has a knee jerk response to the word “planning” which she seems to believe can only refer to a Stalinist five year plan. It will come as a great shock to her if she ever found out how much strategic planning the Army does, let alone industry. Ms Truss beware, socialism is everywhere.
The danger in the Chief Secretary’s thinking is obvious. The Attlee government gave us National Parks, the Green Belt, New Towns and the biggest ever act of localism in history – the transfer of development to local councils. Attacking NIMBYs – politicians blaming voters – is the laziest political response to the housing crisis imaginable. It’s the job of politicians to lead, to inspire, to win arguments. And when the arguments need strengthening, ministers shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for assistance.
The scale of the housing and development challenge in the UK – and it’s multifaceted nature – demands the intellectual heft of a modern day Beveridge. And no Cabinet Minister should ever knock the Town and Country Planning Act. It gave us the best ever vehicle for swift action: the development corporation. By combining land ownership, development and planning powers, it can supercharge a response to a crisis.
I await Ms Truss’ discovery that Attlee produced a surefire way to bypass NIMBYs and deliver housing.
John McTernan was a senior adviser to the Blair government