"It is deeply frustrating that the planning rules hold back economic development in Britain. I was talking to a major global company who said it takes a third of the time to build a warehouse in Germany than it does in Britain,” he said.
Now this 'major global' would say that wouldn't they? Planning is a source of frustration for developers all over the western world. The right approach is obviously balance between rampant development and rampant conservationism. Groups like the CPRE, supported by newspapers like The Telegraph, are getting into a fighting position to try and block the new National Planning Policy Framework, which is rumoured to come out this week alongside, or even as part of the budget.
I can't remember a time when a chancellor got mixed up with the nitty gritting of planning legislation. Sadly I think it's because government have so few options to stimulate growth. Having decided on a fiscally tight economy they can't stimulate from within and with this recession being fairly global, they can't expect exports to help that much either. So what do they do? They resort to tinkering with things like planning legislation, or (today's funny) privatising the roads! None of these will bring forth those lovely green shoots quickly.
There may be good reasons to improve the planning system, something I've been campaigning on for many years. But I don't think that those reasons are fiscal. I'm sure that the reason for the down turn in our housebuilding programme has got very little to do with the structure of our planning system.
The main reason for people not buying houses is fear of the future. We've just been through a global recession, jobless numbers are skyrocketing and there are very few areas of our economy where people feel secure in their jobs. So very few people are buying or selling.
People hunker down in recessions, they stop buying unnecessary goods and a new house is, for most people, nothing more than a very expensive luxury. If you take out a thirty year mortgage, it's a punt on your earnings capacity over the long term. At a time when inflation is low and access to finance, is tight it's not surprising that people don't want to take that risk.
When I last attended a National House Builder's Conference the developers told the communities minister the facts in no uncertain terms. They knew that people weren't buying because they could not or did not wish to extend their mortgages. It's a shame that the minister didn't listen and pass it on to his mate George (Osborne)
There are hundreds of sites all over the country with planning permission, but with no builders present. I don't think people will be drawn back into the market until the following has happened.
1. People feel secure in their jobs.
2. Mortgages become easier to get hold of.
Even then developers will have to entice people back into the market with new brands that are seen to offer better value for money. This did the trick in the early 90's when loft conversions spearheaded by new entrants Urban Splash and Manhattan Lofts kick started the housing market again. People were prepared to buy half finished spaces and fit them out themselves.
It's a wonderful opportunity for new firms willing to sell a more sustainable product. But until we see those green shoots it's not the time to dangle a toe in the market.
Stimulate the construction industry and you get people off the dole queue fast. It's a very important aspect of our economy. But planning is a long term strategy. We need to stimulate the businesses and new developers now, stimulate the money markets and make access to finance easier and more reliable now. Encouraging developers, housing associations, co-ownership co-ops and self builders to invest in construction on sites which already have planning permission could be an fast ticket to fiscal success.
So I would urge the chancellor on Wednesday to forget about fiddling with planning legislation, while the economy is still burning. A fiscal mistake may take ten years and a couple of changes of parliament to get right. Make rash decisions about the environment today, and we'll still be paying for our mistakes in hundreds of years time.