It’s all in the reporting…

‘Labour pledges to strengthen brownfield first policy’, announced Planning Resource on the 23rd September, commenting on the speech made by shadow planning minister Roberta Blackman-Woods at the Labour Party Conference.

Never mind that she went on to say that there isn’t sufficient available brownfield land to keep pace with housing supply and that garden cities, garden villages, and urban extensions would be necessary, Planning Resource chose to focus on the potential tightening of the NPPF in respect of ‘brownfield first’.

It would make it much easier to have a grown up debate about housing – and the flavour of the land necessary to make proper inroads into delivery – if journalists didn’t constantly open the trap door to try and catch those people out that have an opinion, and to pick out points that frankly aren’t news at all.  The NPPF couldn’t be any clearer in promoting brownfield land above greenfield land.  That’s because the protection of countryside is a key tenet in the presumption in favour of sustainable development (i.e. not prioritising building on farmer Giles’ cabbage patch), and the protection of all protections, the Green Belt cannot be touched save for where very special circumstances exist.  However, additionally – and this is a point often overlooked – the NPPF is a material consideration, and not part of the development plan; there isn’t a local authority in existence that has a development plan policy that promotes greenfield development over brownfield land.  So any reference to tightening the NPPF is nonsense and so is the reporting.  Why? Because it is a) unnecessary to make even the merest of tweak to the NPPF, and b) even if it was ambiguous on the subject, it would always be trumped by a local authority with an up to date plan.  Or seemingly on this issue an out-of-date one, judging by recent Secretary of State decisions…

Wouldn’t it be amusing to apply an ‘honesty tab’ to what Blackman-Woods actually said, bearing in mind that in the majority of instances, the pressure on housing, and therefore the imperative to allow infringements beyond brownfield boundaries lies within Green Belt authorities in the South East.  It might look like this:

“Because of the huge uplift we need in housing supply, brownfield land will make no material difference whatsoever in addressing housing need and house price inflation.  We are going to have to allow a mass influx of garden cities, garden villages, urban extensions – frankly anything that enables massive inroads into housing delivery, and in almost all instances, that will mean releasing Green Belt land in and around London and the South East.  It’s going to be a nightmare convincing communities to support such growth, because nobody wants it.  So we are going to have to get landowners and developers to pay for as many community incentives as possible, as early as possible, because no Government can afford to make such grand gestures, and when it all goes wrong, we don’t want to be held responsible”.

For the avoidance of doubt, Blackman-Woods didn’t say that, but when she talks about an honest conversation, I know what has more resonance out of the two messages.  It’s unpopular to talk in blunt terms.  It’s certainly not a vote winner.  But equally, the housing crisis has got worse ever since the Blair Government took on the brownfield-first agenda set in motion by John Gummer (and promoted it as a success, and continues to do so to this day).

I don’t think there’s much chance of any politician being honest any time soon, and equally, I don’t expect to see the media making it any easier to report on such issues either.

So the status quo is set to continue.  And the majority will be damned to the consequences.

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