What does the change in the Treasury’s leadership mean for planning?

Published August 8th, 2016

Under former Prime Minister David Cameron, the Treasury – headed by ex-chancellor George Osborne – took a key role in driving planning policy changes. Experts say that it is not yet clear as to how Philip Hammond’s appointment as chancellor will alter the formulation of planning policy.

During her first appearance at the despatch box as Prime Minister, Theresa May signalled that her government would continue to treat housebuilding as a priority. She said it would continue to put “more into building homes to ensure that young people have a better opportunity to get on the housing ladder”. However, what remains less clear is whether the industry can expect a shift in the dynamic between the Treasury, Number 10 and the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in driving planning policy.

Experts are agreed that during David Cameron’s tenure as Prime Minister, Number 10 and the Treasury took a much bigger role in drawing up planning policy than had previously been the case. Andrew Whitaker, planning director at the Home Builders Federation, said: “Certainly Cameron was very involved in the agenda because he was focused on trying to ensure that his government delivered more housing than previous ones.”

Hugh Ellis, policy director at the Town and Country Planning Association, says that Osborne’s Treasury, in particular, saw housing as an economic growth instrument. According to Ellis, his department’s growing influence saw the DCLG – hit by severe staff cuts – morphing into a mere delivery department, with little opportunity to shape the debate on planning. “There was some pushback from DCLG on some of the more radical ideas, but it is difficult to list many triumphs,” Ellis said.

According to some insiders, challenges to the Treasury’s ambitions came mainly from Cameron’s team, with tensions stemming from the respective attitudes towards planning reform taken by Number 10 and the Treasury. One insider said: “Osborne wasn’t prepared to get into the detail of policy, whereas Cameron got fairly involved in the nuts and bolts of it. Also, Cameron wanted to make changes without annoying people, while Osborne took the line that if people were grumbling then he must be doing something right; he was being tough.”

The introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has arguably been the biggest change to the planning system since 2010. One insider said that Number 10 had recently begun to realise that the policy had not had the desired effect on development output. While the number of planning permissions for housing had risen sharply, the number of homes delivered by the industry remains frustratingly low, the insider said.

There are, so far, few clues as to how changes to the personnel at the top of the three departments is likely to alter the formulation of planning policy. Beyond a general aspiration to provide more housing, May has not publicly shared any views on planning matters.

The incorporation of any fresh thinking could depend on the level of interest from ministerial advisers. Much of the previous government’s agenda emerged from work by Cameron’s special adviser Alex Morton, a former employee of the Policy Exchange think-tank. Morton, who left Number 10 earlier this year, said that whatever the personnel, the Conservative Party’s attitude toward housing would continue to be a key factor. He added: “The Conservative Party now understands that it wants to build more homes, but often struggles in specific cases. It is not just a case of political will; the system is not fundamentally geared to building enough homes. The story of the next few years will be that of a party continuing to grapple with these issues.”

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