UKIP surge and squabbles signal coalition is set to go back to the start on planning, by Jamie Carpenter

Squabbling between coalition parties over planning reform and moves to reassure UKIP supporters over greenfield development appear increasingly likely to form part of the landscape until next May's general election, events of early October suggest.

At first glance, the Liberal Democrat party conference and the result of the Clacton by-election seem unlikely to change much for planners in the short-term. However, the shockwaves of UKIP’s triumph in Essex - described as a "Krakatoa" moment by UKIP leader Nigel Farage - and the fallout from the Lib Dems’ gathering in Glasgow may well be felt by the planning profession in the run-up to the country going to the polls on 7 May 2015.

Planning seems certain to form a key element of the Conservative Party’s response to the UKIP threat. While Europe and immigration feature prominently in UKIP campaign material, the party also seeks to capitalise on anti-development sentiment.

For example, its manifesto for the local elections earlier this year promised to "protect our green spaces by directing new developments to brownfield sites", and criticised the government’s "mass housebuilding" as a "developer’s charter". In May, following the party’s surge in the local elections, newly elected UKIP councillors in south Essex pledged to oppose homes being built on the green belt.

This means that Tory ministers are likely to respond to the threat posed by UKIP to their party’s hopes of a majority by going out of their way over the next seven months not to antagonise those voters harbouring fears over greenfield and green belt development.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles and planning minister Brandon Lewis have already been behind a flurry of UKIP supporter-friendly announcements in recent weeks, such as updated green belt guidance and proposals to amend planning policies for Gypsies and travellers.

Expect to see more of this in the run-up to next May, particularly given that the new housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis’s marginal Great Yarmouth seat is one of nine being targeted by UKIP for the general election.

Hundreds of miles away from UKIP’s east coast stronghold, at last week's Lib Dem party conference in Glasgow there were further clues as to how planning policy may shape up over the next seven months. Here, evidence emerged that the Lib Dems and Tories are at odds over a growing number of planning policy areas.

At the conference, party leader Nick Clegg criticised the Tories’ stance over garden cities, while Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said that he is not convinced that the flagship New Homes Bonus "actually makes any difference".

Meanwhile, the business secretary Vince Cable told the Glasgow conference that "perverse" office to residential permitted development rights are destroying jobs, and energy secretary Ed Davey accused Pickles of "abusing ministerial power" over his intervention in onshore wind applications.

On one level, this sort of squabbling is little more than a political game, part of the Lib Dems’ strategy of "differentiation" (the idea of which is to make it clear in voters’ minds how Lib Dems differ from their coalition partners).

However, as the Lib Dems become more aggressive in their attacks on the Tories in the run up to the general election it may be that there is less agreement between the coalition parties over emerging planning policy. Given the number of government policies Lib Dem ministers have now publicly disowned, it is likely that, when it comes to planning, cuddly, inoffensive localism could be the only thing that both coalition parties agree upon.

This all can only mean that planning policy at the end of the coalition government’s five-year term will feel very much like it did at the beginning, with much emphasis placed on localism.

Jamie Carpenter, deputy editor, Planning // jamie.carpenter@haymarket.com


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