Liz Truss is wrong: planning is not a constraint on freedom, but a vital condition of it

Lewis Silkin and friend playing with a model in 1949. Image: Getty.

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

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.