Tory home truths

17 Nov 06
PETER HETHERINGTON | As policy flip-flops go, it passed almost unnoticed.

As policy flip-flops go, it passed almost unnoticed.

Perhaps that’s because David Cameron has performed so many U-turns over the past year that a reappraisal of Conservative housing policy in England was viewed as — well — peripheral to the new direction of the Tories, wherever that might end up.

In truth, the policy, when aligned with planning, is central to the direction of the Cameroons — localist, or instinctively centralist — whatever they might say to the contrary. Remember the last election, when Michael Howard’s team accused John Prescott of ‘concreting over the South’ with hundreds of thousands of new homes while, at the same time, bulldozing endless terraces of unwanted houses in the North? Forget it. Time to consign that emotive language to history.

Doubtless dragged into the real world by the private Whitehall briefings afforded any Opposition, and the musings of Right-of-centre think-tanks, their platform in this area — whisper it softly — is edging ominously close to the government’s.

Take last month’s party conference in Bournemouth as a marker. Barely one hour before Cameron told confused Tory representatives a few home truths in his keynote speech, shadow housing minister Michael Gove threw caution to the wind at a packed fringe meeting. Although the Town and Country Planning Association event was meant to focus on the state of England — crudely, overdevelopment in the South versus under-investment in the rest of the country — this young Cameroon concentrated exclusively on the need for more housing in the South to underpin the importance of London.

The cerebral Gove asked his bemused audience to recall the decline and fall of the city state of Venice. His message? Don’t let London, one of the world’s great financial centres, drift directionless by an absence of planning and foresight.

For good measure, he implied, like his master, that the case for hundreds of thousands of new homes in the Southeast was compelling. But, as yet, no numbers, no pack drill. For the record, shortly afterwards Cameron broke with the rhetoric of the shadow local government and communities secretary, Caroline Spelman, by insisting: ‘We must be on the side of the next generation… and that means building more houses… let us not pretend there is a pain-free solution to the dilemma that satisfies every public interest.’

Crunch-time is looming for the Tories. Their quality of life commission, chaired by former environment secretary John Gummer and serviced by environmentalist Zac Goldsmith, is due to report alongside a competitiveness commission chaired by John Redwood. These two strands of Toryism, centre-Right localist versus hard-Right centralist, are uneasy bedfellows at the best of times.

While Cameron can argue that these policy commissions are merely advisory, he soon faces more ‘tough choices’ (another Blairite mantra borrowed by the Cameroons).

On one level, the New Tories have bought the localist agenda. Early this month, for instance, Cameron published an alternative sustainable communities Bill and declared: ‘Councils should be the collective instrument of local people rather than the local outposts of central government… Conservatives will give greater powers to local councils by reducing the reach of Whitehall, unelected quangos, and the new regional bodies.’

Well, up to a point, guv. Put aside the Tories’ determination to break the remaining power of local education authorities by giving schools autonomy — thus, indirectly, creating a much stronger central funding directorate — and consider planning and housing.

If more houses are needed in the greater Southeast, it is surely disingenuous to suggest that the decision can be left solely to local authorities. As Neil Sinden, policy director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England noted, Tories have not squared the circle of giving communities more control over their areas while building an unspecified number of new houses. ‘But there’s certainly a change of rhetoric (between) what Caroline Spelman has been saying and what the rest are saying.’

Cameron, in short, risks being caught between the proverbial (idealistic) rock and a (realistic) hard place. His avowedly green credentials imply not only reducing car dependency through carbon taxes, but also improving public transport. New housing developments will assuredly need better rail and bus links if this green agenda is to mean anything. They do not come cheap.

Similarly, devolving power to communities and neighbourhoods, while giving cities greater freedoms and flexibility — apparently a Tory objective as well — carries a modest price tag, with implications for public spending in the round.

Tough choices indeed.

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