Gummer on ... setting course in bad weather

It's pretty hard to think of a more difficult time to look forward with certainty.

Most businesses are battening down the hatches and waiting for the buffeting to come. The banking crisis is by no means over and insurance has yet to feel the full extent of the meltdown. Closer to home, house building is heading for an all-time low, social housing supply is derisory and most brave new plans for sustainable development are on hold.

So how do planners come to terms with all this? First, we must accept that this is at least a two-year downturn and there are still some serious depths to plumb. Next year will be horrible however much the government invests in the economy. The second certainty is that, come the upturn, housing will be in crisis. Demand will have grown and today's scandalous underprovision will have led to acute shortages at all levels of the market. The danger is that this will start prices spiralling all over again. Finally, because of belt-tightening, people will have become much more sensitive to utility bills. The struggle to make ends meet will emphasise energy and water costs for businesses and householders.

So planners must grab every opportunity for development. Developers with the means to build won't bother with pernickety councils. Planning departments who show that good sustainable proposals will win speedy approval will get work for their communities. Business as usual will mean no business at all. Now is the time to gain a reputation for speedy action and principled flexibility. Already the slow and self-serving are losing out and the Croydons, Uttlesfords and Westminsters are seizing chances that present themselves. There's planning gain to be made even in a downturn.

- Former environment secretary John Gummer is Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal.

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