Fyson on ... government's hostility to planning sector that misses chance for joint action on housing crisis

The escalating row about the effect of capping housing benefit provides an opportunity for planners to argue that, given effective policy support, they could set in train a controlled but rapid expansion of house building.

This is important because a consensus is at last forming among commentators, lobbyists and politicians that the underlying cause of the present situation is a chronic under-supply of homes in both social and private housing markets.

It is certainly a disgrace that £21 billion has to be dished out annually in housing allowances, but the government's "fairness" justification for cracking down on this is ill-founded.

Despite wild assertions in tabloid newspapers, there is no great surge in envy of unemployed benefit claimants, even where their circumstances require large houses that have become absurdly expensive.

A notable feature of debate since the spending review has been coalition unwillingness to consider fine-tuning its intentions in the light of informed comment, even when implementing the cuts is problematic and all their effects were not anticipated.

Requests to consider adjustments to protect vulnerable tenants from the evictions that will result from the benefit cap are treated as challenges to the regime's authority. This is unreasonable to the individuals concerned, to the local authorities likely to experience an influx of claimants and to established mixed communities in expensive central areas.

The terms in which the present hostility towards planning is being expressed are likewise brutal and boorish and are wildly ill-informed on the relationship of professional planners to their political masters. The blunt communities secretary Eric Pickles must soften his hostile rhetoric if he is to achieve the co-operation any government needs.

He could even try the disarming disclaimer practised by his acolyte at the recent National Planning Forum, who prefaced his advocacy of extreme deregulation by declaring, with some veracity: "I'm going to make a prat of myself".

Now that new housing numbers look set to dip below 100,000 a year for the first time in a century, opportunistic sycophancy will be less helpful to government than assertion of planning's ability to get to grips with one of the greatest social problems of our time.

It is the right house-building policies rather than a new planning system that will make a difference. The danger is that even as consensus emerges about what needs to be done, revolutionary fervour will sweep away the means of doing it.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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