Battle commences

A new-build housing estate in the countryside

Liz Truss’s first Prime Ministers’ Questions passed without Oliver Dowden’s presence but our MP’s definitely been pitch-rolling* for the big green belt fight

Hertsmere stays blue but only just

The Tory Party’s own Anti-Growth Coalition smells blood. Parliament is back after a long conference season break, extended by the Queen’s funeral. Labour is now an average of 30 points ahead of the Tories in national opinion polls. If there was a general election tomorrow Labour’s parliamentary majority would be over 300. Dowden would hang on to his seat but his majority in Hertsmere would be smaller even than the historic low of the 1997 Blair landslide. The weakness of the government brought about by the Chancellor’s catastrophic mini-budget hasn’t just empowered the opposition, though, it’s boosted critics inside the governing party too.

Tory backbenchers may mobilise against cuts in benefits that they can see will be disastrous, or they might decide that the NI increase that was going to fund social care must be reinstated. Let’s face it, though, what’s really got them going is the prospect of winning concessions on proposed planning reforms from the embattled front bench. The 2019 manifesto pledge to build 300,000 new homes per year – so far undelivered of course – looks like it’s about to be scrapped so the anti-growth Tories might record that as victory number one in the coming war.

It won’t be the first time Tories from the shires and the home counties have derailed planning reforms. Economic growth will always be secondary to protection of the green belt in these constituencies. Almost everyone – and especially the economically liberal end of the think tank spectrum – recognises that Britain’s bizarre and sclerotic planning regime is holding back vital infrastructure investment and improvements to the housing stock. For Tory MPs, though, this remains the ultimate third rail issue.

It seems that Tory backbenchers are also teaming up with Labour MPs in constituencies threatened with the prospect of fracking. If your response to the government’s announcement that fracking would restart was “it’ll never happen” give yourself a pat on the back.

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

Oliver Dowden is out of ministerial office and, for the time being, out of favour. He continues to use his time out in the cold to restore his bond with Hertsmere constituents in time for the general election. He’s defending the green belt on Twitter and insisting on local consent to planning decisions. He’s firing off written questions to ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (the planning ministry). So far they’ve all been about planning and the green belt. We shared the first three in an earlier post. His most recent questions are:

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, whether he will take steps to protect the Green Belt in the National Planning Policy Framework.

Question from Oliver Dowden, 10 October 2022

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what the Government’s policy is on the calculation of new housing targets in local authorities which are predominately made up of Green Belt land.

Question from Oliver Dowden, 10 October 2022

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what steps the Government is taking to address local housing projections which are based on out-of-date numbers.

Question from Oliver Dowden, 10 October 2022

The minister assigned these questions, Parliamentary Under Secretary Lee Rowley, responds with a holding position:

Existing Government policy is to help make home ownership affordable for more people and to help more people rent their own home. To do that, we will need to deliver more homes. The standard method for assessing local housing need is used by councils to inform the preparation of their local plans and, as part of the local plan process, Councils are responsible for determining the best approach to development in their areas, including taking into consideration important matters such as Green Belt.

The previous Government undertook a review of the standard method formula in 2020 and, after carefully considering consultation responses, they retained the existing formula providing stability and certainty for planning and for local communities. As with all policies, we are monitoring the standard method, particularly as the impact of changes to the way we live and work and levelling up become clear.

Written answer from Lee Rowley, 10 October 2022

National planning frameworks, local plans, rules about affordable housing, a tapestry of historic green belt protections – this is a complicated business and dry as dust (we practically nodded off typing this) but there can’t be a better-informed group than these home counties MPs. They’re planning ninjas, with hundreds of years of opposing major projects and reform to the rules between them. We can only sympathise with Mr Rowley, whose inbox, we feel certain, is going to be pinging constantly as these questions pour in. A quick search of They Work For You suggests that many Tory MPs have kicked off the new session with detailed questions about planning. They’re going to be a tough crowd and the action returns to the floor of the house soon. Meanwhile the markets remain unimpressed, mortgage rates are now rising faster than during the financial crisis and the Winter looms.

* If you’ve been listening to the increasingly desperate defences of the Truss-Kwarteng mini-catastrophe from various leadership proxies you’ll have heard the phrase ‘rolling the pitch’ or ‘pitch-rolling’, as in “‚Ķthe suspension of politics in the mourning period left no time to ‘roll the pitch’ and warn investors of his plan.” We think this awkward (but obviously very Tory) phrase was first applied to politics by David Cameron. Here’s an example from 2014.

Green belt red alert

In the Tory leadership race, Team Rishi has deployed the ultimate THW (Tory Heartland Weapon) – the green belt – and Oliver Dowden is ready

Map of the green belt around London
Map of the London green belt

September 2022 update: turns out the green belt is still growing. The annual government numbers show that, after a break of about eight years, the green belt grew by 1.5% in the year 2021-22 (admittedly, all the growth was in the North of England). And, let’s be clear, if they were allowed, local authorities could build hundreds of thousands of decent, affordable homes in the green belt and it would make hardly any difference.

The green belt Is a 1930s invention – the product of Fabian paternalism and modern local government activism. It was a radical idea that limited speculative building, protected green space and parkland for working people and contributed to the dispersion of decent housing beyond the big cities. London is smaller as a result – the 20th Century sprawl that many thought inevitable was sharply foreclosed. London must one of the few capital cities in the world that looks roughly the same on a contemporary map as it did in the years after the First World War.

Communities on the both sides of the green belt continue to look out across fields and woods long after they might reasonably be expected to have been paved over. The London green belt is enormous – 135 square miles of land, substantially larger than London itself – and it’s got bigger over time. A big extension in the 1950s saw parts of the green belt pushed out to 35 miles from the centre of London.

It’s also, of course, an indefensible nonsense. An initially benign measure, intended to protect city dwellers from rampant development and small towns from being engulfed by the sprawl, has become a kind of Home Counties fortress – an impenetrable defensive shield for rural and suburban communities, almost exclusively in the South East of England (and almost exclusively Tory). It’s an irrational and uniquely selfish device, and almost unique in the world. The idea that valuable land, close to the economic centre of Britain, should be arbitrarily and permanently protected from use is eccentric at best, wicked at worst.

And as an idea it’s fantastically robust. In UK politics it’s essentially untouchable. Over the decades legislation has been reinforced, protections hardened. London’s green belt has grown (and there are now green belts around other English cities). Perfectly sane measures to shrink or amend the green belt have been blocked and politicians who embrace reform always come to regret it. Most won’t touch it with a barge pole.

And, of course, those of us who live by the Green Belt love it – and we’ll expend enormous amounts of energy to defend it – inventing justifications for its permanent protection, most perfectly valid. It’s a ‘green lung‘, it contributes to ‘ecosystem services‘, it’s a corridor for wildlife, it offers various magical protections for the health and happiness of both city dwellers and those on the other side of the moat. We put up signs in our front gardens, attend public meetings and sign petitions. And who can blame us? The green belt has underpinned the value of our homes for decades and contributes to the wellbeing of our families. We can’t think of a good reason to touch it.

An industry of well-funded think tanks, lobby groups, trusts and protest groups has emerged, especially since the 1950s. There’s a Parliamentary All-Party Group on the green belt, of course. A fabulously dense defensive architecture has been retrospectively erected around the idea of the green belt – connecting it with various other big issues – the agriculture lobby, rural landowners, the hospitality and leisure industries, the green lobby – all have joined the defense of the green belt from time to time. For columnists and conservative opinion formers it’s practically sacred.

The builders and developers who want to liberate the green belt don’t help their case much, either. What they put up in the places they are allowed to build is almost always horrible – opportunistic, lowest-common-denominator housing squeezed onto inappropriate plots, speculative commercial developments that blight town centres. Estates dumped in inaccessible locations (or on flood plains). And, inevitably, they take every opportunity to avoid their affordable housing obligations.

It’s hard to argue that rolling farmland, woodlands and parks are not worth defending – the green belt protects some of England’s most precious countryside: Epping Forest, the Surrey Hills, the Chilterns. As you’d expect, the largely suburban and rural electorate in the Conservative Party leadership contest is very much on-side. This explains why the collapsing NHS, booming child poverty and the climate emergency are barely on the policy agenda but the green belt very much is.

Oliver Dowden’s green belt intervention is a long piece in support of Rishi Sunak in the Telegraph. There’s nothing to see here, really. It’s what you’d expect from an MP with a track record of privet hedge bothering but it’s full of Tory membership dog whistles carefully calibrated for his electorate:

Mr Sunak said town halls will be encouraged to regenerate industrial land and he will strengthen policy to encourage the building of much denser housing in inner-city areas.

Oliver Dowden, Daily Telegraph, 27 July 2022

We’re sure the people of these inner-city areas (perhaps the same ones Rishi was cannily able to divert funds away from while Chancellor) will be thrilled to learn that his plan means the land around them will be built on at much higher density. The word ‘brownfield’, which, of course, is a euphemism for ‘not a Tory constituency’ is used ten times.

For my constituents in Hertfordshire and those in neighbouring seats, the fear of losing this belt of fresh air, open space and countryside is raw and real, and as party chairman I saw the Liberal Democrats constantly seek to play on that fear in Conservative held seats around the country.

As ‘raw and real’ as the prospect of falling into poverty or destitution when the energy bills come in this Winter?

Where communities do not want development, it must not be permitted to go ahead. Overzealous planning inspectors must have their wings clipped. It is local people, not bureaucrats, that should take decisions on the preservation of our countryside…

Planning inspectors must be fed up with the rollercoaster of affection and approbation they experience. They’re saints when they deny applications for green belt projects and unredeemable sinners when they permit them.

Mr Dowden has almost certainly picked the wrong side in this fight but he’s honourable enough not to have jumped ship and he has to hope that his track record as a muscular defender of single-sex toilets and colonial streetnames will win him favour in the Truss camp in September. Certainly jumping to the defence of the green belt can’t possibly have done him any harm.