Resolute reform leader

Despite Labour's poor showing in the latest polls, housing and planning minister John Healey remains bullish about planning reforms even beyond the general election.

John Healey
John Healey

A general election is only months away and the polls point to a Conservative victory. Undaunted, the DCLG's ministerial team is pressing ahead with a raft of planning reforms, even if many look unlikely to be in place before the hustings.

Housing and planning minister John Healey seems confident that cracks will appear in the Tories' credentials as their policies emerge into daylight. The opposition's long-awaited planning green paper is due towards the end of the year. When it arrives, he foresees a stark choice for those in the planning sector.

"People will start to see very big differences between the Conservatives' plans and what we are doing," he predicts. "These are very big differences with very big consequences. As the election gets closer, it will become clearer and clearer that the Tories' plans do not stack up."

He draws particular attention to a centrepiece of their housing policy, the incentive system. Shadow housing minister Grant Shapps has made much of plans to create a "nation of house builders", to be achieved by matching council tax contributions from new homes. "The incentive that they talk about is a con," Healey responds bluntly.

"They say local authorities will be able to keep all the council tax on new homes. I came to this job after two years as local government minister. Every local authority in England keeps every penny that it raises in council tax now.

"They also say they will match that amount for six years. But if you read the small print, you will see that the money will come from the local government settlement. In other words, the plan is to rob other local councils."

In turn, Healey's own party's initiatives have come under intense opposition scrutiny. Regional planning in particular has been the subject of much derision in recent months and the cause has not been helped by delays to regional spatial strategies in southern England. Nevertheless, Healey deems the process a success.

"We have six strategies in place. In the South East, there is a final look at two areas of green belt. In the East of England, the large majority of the plan was accepted. In the South West, some elements are being looked at afresh. We must have a level of planning that goes beyond local authority boundaries.

"If you do not have decision-making beyond that then you have decisions taken at national level. That would either mean that decisions would not get taken or they would be made by people who do not know the area."

In defending the process, Healey questions the wisdom of scrapping regional plans under the guise of localism. Yet it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that regional planning problems have arisen from friction between national and local government. Healey points out that it is not just the regional structure that has suffered in this regard.

Local authorities must recognise the importance of long-term local planning and allocate resources accordingly, he maintains. "On the government's side, we have a responsibility to stress the importance of local development frameworks. It is hard not to accept that a 15 or 20-year view of your area is necessary if you want it to be successful. I would like to have seen more authorities complete their core strategies."

Spatial planning provides the framework for getting decisions faster and fairer, Healey believes. The same logic underpins the establishment of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC). Inevitably, efforts to create a fast-track system for major projects have led to fears about bypassing democracy. But Healey dismisses this notion, insisting that the system will be faster, fairer and open to scrutiny.

"Too often planning has put obstacles in the way," he adds. "Confidence and certainty in the system is critical. We must allow people to be more certain and get decisions faster. But the IPC is not letting people off the hook. It is going to require rigorous pre-application consultation. It is clear and open but time-limited. There is always uncertainty when you put a new system in place. But the IPC is in a safe pair of hands."

Even if the IPC can create a speedier decision-making process, the logistics of paying for infrastructure will pose problems for years to come. The community infrastructure levy (CIL) has been mooted as one way of tackling the problem. But with increased pressure on private as well as public sector finances, many have questioned the wisdom of introducing another development tax.

"I am convinced that now is the right time to introduce the CIL legislation," Healey reiterates. "It creates the framework that allows local authorities to decide whether and when they want to introduce CIL. I do not expect a rush from day one while we are still in recession. But it is important because it creates the framework for the medium term."

Despite the activity at the DCLG, there is an eleventh hour feel about the roll-out of the IPC and CIL. But Healey insists that it is business as usual: "The prospect of an election raises questions, but I do not think that it casts a serious shadow of uncertainty. It will not stop me from doing whatever I can to get new systems in place and is not stopping me from going further where I can. I intend to continue what I am doing up to the election and beyond."

CV

Age: 49

Family: Married with one child

Education: Degree in social and political science, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Interests: Family

2009: Minister of state for housing and planning, DCLG

2007L Local government minister, DCLG

2005: Financial secretary to the Treasury

2002: Economic secretary to the Treasury

2001: Under-secretary of state, Department of Education and Skills

1997: MP for Wentworth, South Yorkshire

1994: Campaigns director, TUC


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