Pragmatic policy-maker

Conservative planning spokeswoman Jacqui Lait is adamant that people get a say on issues in their community and believes developers should back this, she tells Domenic Donatantonio.

As the Conservatives' shadow planning minister, Jacqui Lait gives a surprisingly pragmatic view of her duties. "In politics, you go where you are put," she remarks. "My jobs over the years have taught me to pick up any brief."

These are perhaps not the words that a hardened planner would want to hear from someone who could be in charge of the system after the next general election. But with 15 years' experience as an MP and the elected representative for Beckenham in south-east London since 1997, Lait is nothing if not a realist. She has seen first-hand the bitter wrangles that can afflict the sector. "The reason I am enjoying it so much is that I have always had an interest in the built environment," she says.

Meeting in her office in the Houses of Parliament, it is clear that Lait is a politician who knows her stuff. On a chair is a pile of labelled, archived issues of Planning. "I have seen from experiences in my own constituency that the planning system is as close as possible to breaking point. Local people feel that they have lost control over their own environment," she believes.

By way of illustration, she cites the battle between developers and residents to build an 18-screen multiplex cinema in Crystal Palace Park. The years between 1997 and 2001 saw legal wrangles, court cases, European intervention and even eco-warriors living in the park to protest against the proposals. "It was a really strong example of how the system was not working. To have that sort of confrontation was just so unnecessary," says Lait.

One of the more controversial policies she has put forward in her current role is to change the way planning powers are used by local authorities. She has repeatedly criticised the government's top-down targets for housing. Instead, the Conservatives would encourage local authorities to use charrettes or Planning for Real-type models to gauge local views.

These would involve council representatives sitting down with communities, planning consultants and developers to find a joint plan for a local area's needs. Yet surprisingly, the idea received a frosty response when Lait gave a speech to developers and planners at an event last month on how it could work in practice. It is no exaggeration to say it was greeted with a resounding chorus of disapproval.

Lait remains defiant in the face of criticism. "There are lots of ordinary people out there who have opinions on the way that they want their area to develop," she insists. "They do not always have the time or the capacity to express their views, but they have their opinions nonetheless. I think that it is better to go with the grain than against what people are saying. It is also in the interests of the developers too. Surely they want to be known in the area as good developers?"

Lait is a staunch critic of the government's current moves to modernise the planning system. "The Planning Bill is deeply undemocratic. It adds to the feeling of helplessness for local people," she complains. During the bill's passage through the Commons, she backed moves to stop the proposed infrastructure planning commission in its tracks. "The secretary of state should continue to have a quasi-judicial role," she believes.

Lait is married to Peter Jones, leader of East Sussex County Council and deputy chairman of the South East England Development Agency, who she met while both were studying at the University of Strathclyde. One date that is always remembered in their household is 1 May 1997. The day that Tony Blair's New Labour took power was a bittersweet experience for the couple.

"I lost my seat in Hastings and Rye and Peter was elected as a councillor in East Sussex. I did not expect to lose and it certainly tempered Peter's joy," she recalls. She stresses that the couple would never cross the divide between local and central politics. "We always swear that we could never work together", she laughs. "But we still talk politics when we get home."

To unwind, she listens to classical music and takes all too occasional trips to the theatre. "Once you become a politician, you tend not to have a lot of spare time for these things," she laments. This sums up her approach as a single-minded politician whose appeal is directed towards the common person rather than the common planner. Regardless of your political leaning, that pragmatic stance could well be a vote-winner.

Age: 60
Family: Married
Education: Degree in business management studies, University of
Interests: Walking, swimming, tennis, food and wine
2007: Conservative shadow planning minister
2005: Shadow minister for London
2003: Shadow charities minister
2001: Shadow secretary of state for Scotland
1999: Shadow pensions minister
1997: MP for Beckenham
1992: MP for Hastings and Rye

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