1. Eric Pickles, speech to the 'Home Builders Federation "One Year On" Conference', London, 31 March 2011
2. Ed Howker and Shiv Malik, Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth, London, Icon Books Ltd, 2010
3. Press Release, The Community Right to Build, Communities and Local Government, posted here
4. James Heartfield, Coalition of the unwilling, New Geography, 7 January 2011, posted here
5. James Heartfield, Green Capitalism - Manufacturing scarcity in an age of abundance, www.heartfield.org, 2008, p 91, with details of how to buy posted here
6. Ian Abley, quoted by Mark Key, Sustainable Masonry Construction, Garston, Watford, IHS BRE Press, 2009, p 90
7. Ian Abley, Zero Eco-Towns, 28 March 2011, posted here
8. Building A Greener Future: Towards Zero Carbon Development - Consultation, Wetherby, Communities and Local Government, December 2006, p 4
9. Eric Pickles, 'Its the local economy, stupid', 30 July 2010, Conservative Home Blog
The awesome mendacity of Eric Pickles
I have been trying to decide whether Eric Pickles, made Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 12 May 2010 in the Coalition government, is stupid or mendacious. Today it seems he is far from stupid, but clearly hopes we are. We will be stupid if we fall for the evasions and distortions in his speech to the Home Builders Federation.
Today, on 31 March 2011, Pickles gave a speech at the Home Builders Federation One Year On Conference, (1) a full transcript of which is posted here on the Communities and Local Government website.
Eric Pickles began his speech with the observation that 'Britain is a growing society', but his Coalition doesn't appreciate the benefits of population growth. They have introduced stiff immigration controls, politically dividing society to the applause of environmentalists within and without the Coalition. The wide green constituency for this government, encouraged by New Labour before the Coalition, hates the increasing mobility of more people around the world. Pickles plays to the many who oppose immigration. He and they say that immigrants are taking British jobs and housing. Internationalists know there is no such thing as a British job, or a British house. Like Gordon Brown leading New Labour, or David Cameron leading the Coalition, Pickles is a socially divisive nationalist. He may believe he is working to protect the planet, while talking about a "Big Society", but he really wants a sustainable Little Britain.
Pickles knows that '... the number of households is set to keep on rising in the years to come'. Yet it is Pickles who has stopped bothering to match household formation with house building. He prefers to blame immigrants. New Labour at least tried to measure household growth, even though housing production was never sufficient to meet that demographic demand. The growing number of new households finding too few homes to live in has not shown in homelessness on the streets, but in co-habitation of households, with increased overcrowding. The 2011 Census will show that. The assumption that each household should have a home no longer bothers the Coalition. Overcrowding is their answer to the year-on-year back-log of insufficient house building.
Pickles may express concern for young households. 'The average age of first-time buyers is already creeping steadily upwards. The number of people under 30 buying without parental help has fallen 90 per cent since 2006. Though young people's desire to own is as strong as ever'. Like New Labour, the Coalition has no solution to the problem of increasing housing unaffordability in low wage Britain. I think Pickles is trying to play on intergenerational tensions, as the authors of Jilted Generation have done. (2) Pickles is adept at exploiting political division, and young people should not blame their parents or grandparents for wanting a better life in their day. It is a serious mistake to blame the "Baby Boom" generation for a systemic failure in Britain's political economy. It is old news, but Britain has long had problems with raising living standards for everyone.
Pickles says '... housing has a vital role in driving up economic growth'.
With the HBF members building at the lowest level since reliable records began in the early 1920s, this flatters, but what does he mean?
He said he wanted to be entirely explicit: 'Britain needs more homes'.
What he leaves unclear is whether he means Britain as an economy, or the people of Britain. He might want more economic activity, and he is certainly under pressure from the construction industry, but his Coalition blames immigrants, accepts overcrowding, and sets young against old.
More people need more homes. Yet it is not that simple for Pickles. He abolished annual housing targets because they were not being met, and were hated by those who didn't want them to be met. The housing targets were useless, and New Labour loved targets for everything, but they became politically contested. His Coalition has decided not to guarantee that even the government's underestimation of the homes needed each year will be built. As the Minister responsible for the national planning system he has decided not to plan house building.
This is surely a dereliction of duty. It is true that '... despite housing targets, the rate of housebuilding hit its lowest point in peacetime in over 80 years'. For a decade at audacity we have been warning that the environmentalist led retreat from housing production would be a problem. The Coalition will continue that trend, and deepen Britain's housing predicament. The British people face a housing Trilemma:
Pickles engages with none of this. He neglects to explain how his getting rid of a national numerical target related to demographics builds a single new home. Obviously targets can be missed, or bettered. But how can an industrial democracy have a national planning system based on denying the freedom of people to build on their own land since 1947, and then not plan to act on that national denial of development rights in 2011?
He says he is '... cutting away red tape if it isn't doing its job', but this is a sleight of hand. He is using the national planning system to evade the responsibilities government retains in the universal denial of the Right to Build. He passes the blame onto Local Planning Authorities who are being given no choice but to act unilaterally. A Planning Ministry without a plan means no-one locally knows what their job is in the national context.
Pickles is evading Ministerial responsibility for the bureaucratic chaos and continuing under supply of housing that will result from his willingness to axe tiers of administration that provided regional strategic planning, all in the name of his reformist "Localism". He says '... housing is the most market-oriented of all my Department's responsibilities. Policy should go with the grain of the market. Not against it'. But there is no free market in house building. It is Pickles who maintains a denial of the Right to Build in Britain that dates from 1947. Then farmers were stopped from selling land for house building on the open market. He keeps the law, but cuts out the regional strategic thinking that the law found it needed. Planning lawyers will be having a field day, and Pickles is expecting that.
Pickles knows he stands on 1947 legislation. He is not as deluded as his New Labour predecessors were about planning. He admits he has used his powers under national planning law to get rid of centrally set density targets and Home Information Packs. This is tinkering with a system of regulation that means the market is in the value of land with a prospect of planning approval, not any land that could be a building site if only the planning system would allow it to be developed. He is redirecting policy and the trade in title, not saying that anyone can build on their own land, as they were free to do, pre-1947. Restoring the Right to Build would be a deregulation of Freehold that no government has dared to propose.
Pickles can only get away with his deception because no-one is seriously looking at the Right to Build. Grant Shapps nervously talked about a qualified Community Right to Build during the run up to the May 2010 General Election, but he learned not to mention it much after becoming Housing Minister under Pickles. (3) Thought of a Right to Build has been squashed out of Shapps. He got far too close to the truth of the matter.
The short leaflet for the vaguely defined and fatally qualified Community Right to Build is re-posted on this website. (3) Shapps' idea is dead.
Pickles is most mendacious when he says '... localism isn't just a transfer of power. It's also a transfer of responsibility and a transfer of the consequences for indecision'. He will point the finger at Local Planning Authorities when homes don't get built, even though as the Minister he has transferred none of the powers of the 1947 national denial of development rights. Only the state can give Freeholders back their Right to Build, and Local Authorities would then be powerless to stop people building on their own land. With a universal Right to Build every Local Authority, and the government, would have to use their powers of argument to get support for a plan, as was the case before the Second World War. In other words, Localism is another manifestation of the contempt the state has for the population, and one that makes it appear as if Local Authorities are responsible for resistance to development.
Having made it appear as if power has been given to local people, when no change in the meaning of Freehold has happened, Pickles lectures the developers at the HBF conference. 'When people are happy about the look and feel of new development they are more likely to say yes'. The Minister who happily talks of "deregulation" promises to impose further legal duties on developers to consult with local communities BEFORE making a planning application for large-scale projects. '... best interests are served by spending more time with the locals, than with the lawyers', he says. Pickles suggests the planning system will magically work as the cumulative effect of unrelated Local Authority decisions '... to bring forward the development the country needs, in the right place, at the right time, and to the right standards'. This sounds like free market thinking, and is presented as such, but it is nothing of the sort. Pickles is too scared of industrial democracy to give landowners back their Right to Build. Today, landowners are the social majority, and finance capitalism requires mortgage lending to be secured on inflated house prices.
As James Heartfield appreciates, it is confusing when '... we had Labour against socialism. Now we have a Conservative government shy about capitalism'. (4) This appears virtuous, because '... environmentalism is the ideology of capitalism in retreat from production'. (5) Few have a good word for population growth combined with industrial productivity.
Pickles knows that anti-industrial green ideological conflicts will mire Local Authorities, cut adrift from Regional Spatial Strategies, but still embedded within the national planning system that requires them to police the denial of the Right to Build. He holds out the promise of help from the CLG, but don't be fooled. No clear guidance will arrive:
'We're aiming to condense over a hundred pieces of separate planning policy, guidance, and circulars into a single, clear, easy to understand document. A new National Planning Policy Framework was one of the first things we got started working on when we first came into office. At its heart will be a presumption in favour of sustainable development'.
Pickles knows there will be no sharp consensus about what sustainable development is. For New Labour sustainability was predicated on density targets. Not for the Coalition. 'If a proposal meets the right measures of sustainability, including environmental standards - it should go ahead', he says. There will be no agreement on "the right measures". There are countless arguments about how best to green Little Britain. Sustainability is elastic, and so many charlatans have smuggled so much rubbish into it that you're better off not using the prefix "sustainable". (6) The tiring experience of New Labour planning Eco-Towns gives the lie to his stated aim. (7) The national planning system will struggle to arrive at a NPPF, leaving uncertainty on policy. The confusion will probably be blamed on Local Authorities by Pickles when house building fails to recover enough.
Pickles is cheekily '... calling on councils to be realistic in the way they use the planning system'. Yet it is Pickles who hides behind the unrealisable promise of a National Planning Policy Framework in favour of sustainable development, to be locally differentiated in application.
The problem will be manifest in the policy of zero carbon. New Labour was pleased with their "zero carbon" agenda in 2006, when so many of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's housing initiatives had failed over the decade after the Conservatives lost the election in 1997. 'We believe the planning system, the new Code for Sustainable Homes and Building Regulations must all play a part in delivering this agenda.' (8) The Coalition has indeed trashed the New Labour definition of zero carbon, but that doesn't mean there is consensus amongst environmentalists:
'The proposals that were on the table when we came in would have made builders responsible for the appliances used by people living in the homes they built. Hairdryers. Plasma TVs. Xboxes. That's not your responsibility. It's theirs. We are asking you only to take responsibility for the things you do and should control - the energy efficiency measures, the heating and hot water systems, the building services'.
That is an outburst of sanity, but why stop with an exclusion of cooking and plug-in appliances from New Labour's zero carbon? Why should the Building Regulations intrude into the way people use water in the home or turn the lights on? Why shouldn't people be free to max out the heating? What is the purpose of the Builing Regulations? For greens the regulations were to be used to force people to behave in sustainable ways, and there was no end to the limits environmentalists were eager to impose. Pickles has restarted a massive row, and has not reached an early consensus for any imagined NPPF. Since 1666 regulations properly aimed to ensure the safety of buildings, and can universally raise the comfort of new and refurbished construction. Beyond that they are being used to put a green policeman in every home. The Coalition doesn't know what needs to be done to rescue the Building Regulations.
Pickles was silent on hard points of regulatory principle. He drifted...
'I well remember buying my first home. The sense of ownership, pride and independence. I want more young families to be able to experience that. Not the frustration of being stuck in cramped, unsuitable accommodation. Nor having to rely on the bank of mum and dad for a deposit. That is if mum and dad are lucky enough to be able to afford it'.
Pickles snapped out of his reminiscence to advocate mortgage support co-funded by government and developers, '... putting ownership in the grasp of 10,000 first-time buyers over the next two years'. After being promised "Localism" within a NPPF, supposedly to stop the collapse in production to under 140,000 homes a year, the HBF audience must have thought 10,000 assisted first time buyers will make little difference.
It wasn't clear what co-funded might mean either. Probably even more responsibilities for developers. Pickles clearly wanted to end by making it clear to house builders that it was they who were responsible for the sustainability of communities, and not him as Secretary of State.
The Home Builders Federation members were '... building not just houses, but places people are proud to call home'. A point the HBF had made about itself when it ceased being the House Builders Federation.
That name change was in recognition that under New Labour they were mostly building flats. Pickles gave this a freshly flattering flourish. Yes they were '... turning great ideas on paper into bricks and mortar'. But they were making '... neighbourhoods where people are happy to raise their children. And into homes that people leave in the morning ready to meet the day, and that they are glad to come home to at night'. Maybe the "H" is for "happiness"? The Happiness Builders Federation...
Pickles swelled, and declared: 'It's an awesome responsibility. I know you are up to the challenge'. That might have pleased the HBF.
His speech to the HBF has convinced me that Pickles is capable of awesome mendacity. What is less obvious is whether the people of Britain will hold the Secretary of State to account for planning law that denies the Right to Build, and which underpins the unaffordable housing market on which the mortgage market is secured. Running through what might seem to be dull issues of housing and planning are the politics of population growth and productivity. The Coalition's "Big Society" based on "Localism" is a plan for a low wage, badly housed, Little Britain.
We will be stupid if we let Pickles plan that truncated future for us, but it is necessary to see that there are many people who depend on his mendacity succeeding. One Year On and the Coalition is going after out of work and poorly paid households on benefits in expensively housed urban Britain. The Coalition wants to focus blame on immigrants or anyone who enjoyed the economic dynamic of the Welfare State before the mid-1960s. Meanwhile the institutionalised dependency of swathes of British society on the national planning system is sustained locally.
'Its up to you. Be as ambitious as you can. Be as radical as you like. Be as bold as you want. Im not going to stand in anyones way'. (9)
He doesn't mean that. Pickles will obstruct everyone challenging the 1947 planning law. Shapps learned Localism is meant to extend that law.
It's not the local economy, stupid!
It's the denial of the Right to Build.
Ian Abley 31.03.2011
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