When Leo McKinstry objected to his neighbours’ plan to build two blocks of flats, he quickly discovered the limits of ‘community empowerment’ under New Labour
There is an increasingly Orwellian tone about the language of the Labour government. The Ministry of Truth, the state propaganda machine in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, would have been only too pleased with the doublethink of the fashionable mantra ‘together in diversity’, endlessly repeated to justify the destructive creed of multiculturalism, or the inanity of the advertising slogan ‘the People’s Post Office’, launched at the very time when a mass cull of local post offices is underway against the wishes of the people. Equally dishonest is Gordon Brown’s pledge to support ‘British jobs for British workers’, when mass immigration actually means that most new jobs in the economy have gone to foreigners.
The term ‘eco-town’ is a classic Orwellian oxymoron, where the destruction of the green belt by suburban sprawl is presented as a measure for protecting the environment. Indeed, when it comes to the issue of planning, Hazel Blears, the minister responsible for the logical absurdity of eco-towns, has an almost unfathomable capacity for indulging in the sort of rhetorical euphemisms, distortions and contradictions that characterised official pronouncements in Orwell’s novel. So she claims that she wants the public to have a bigger say over local planning issues, but at the same time she wants the system to be more ‘streamlined’ and ‘efficient’ by removing ‘bureaucratic hurdles’, which is Orwellian code for overriding local objections to development schemes. She tells us with a straight face that Gordon Brown ‘really genuinely means it when he says he wants to move from the big centralist state to more local involvement’, yet she and the Prime Minister are proposing to set up a vast new centralist unelected quango called the Independent Planning Commission to oversee major projects.
‘Community empowerment’ is one of Ms Blears’s current favourite terms. There is to be a ‘Community Empowerment Bill’ this summer, based on the ‘Community Empowerment Action Plan’ she published last October, which called for local councils to become ‘Community Empowerment champions’ in the drive ‘to revive local democracy’. But the more she repeats the phrase, the more she exposes its hollowness. For in reality, local influence over planning has been traduced by Labour. Development in this country is now largely governed by a mix of naked commercial greed and Stalinist central control. In a climate of institutionalised bullying led by an unholy alliance of left-wing politicians, Whitehall bureaucrats, property firms and retail giants, local democracy is the loser.
I have first-hand experience of the emptiness of Ms Blears’s rhetoric about ‘empowerment’. My wife and I have a small Edwardian terraced house in Westgate-on-Sea on the north Kent coast, a quiet resort about which John Betjeman wrote a poem in the 1930s. ‘Hark, I hear the bells of Westgate/ I will tell you what they sigh/ Where those minarets and steeples/ Prick the open Thanet sky,’ runs the first stanza. With a degree of poetic licence, Betjeman somewhat exaggerated the beauty of the village. Nevertheless, Westgate has preserved its period architecture and traditional charm better than many other places in the south-east of England.
Yet even here, we have felt the oppression of Labour’s fixation with development. Our house lies in the middle of a conservation area, and our next-door neighbours have an attractive period home set in a large garden lined with mature trees, whose overhanging branches enhance the leafy tranquillity of our street. But crude financial exploitation seems to be all that matters to our neighbours. They recently put in a planning application to demolish their home, and build two blocks of flats on the site. The scheme appeared to be outrageous, nothing more than an exercise in vandalism. There were powerful objections from other residents and the local conservation officer. The local authority, Thanet District Council, threw it out immediately when it came before the planning committee. Further attempts by the neighbours to win municipal approval for their act of destruction were equally fruitless.
That should have been the end of the matter. Thanet Council had done its job, protecting local heritage and upholding the wishes of the public against greed merchants. But all this counts for nothing in Hazel Blears’s brave new world of ‘community empowerment’. Our neighbours now put in an appeal to the government’s Planning Inspectorate, an unaccountable body which has the power to override the decisions of elected councillors. At first, I was not too worried about this move, since I naively believed our neighbours’ plan was too preposterous to be countenanced. But to my astonishment, the inspector overturned the council’s rejection, and gave his approval to the erection of the two apartment blocks.
The farce does not end there. Though the inspector has sanctioned the building of the flats, our neighbours’ plan to demolish their own house has yet to receive official permission. Last week, like the other residents in the street, we received a letter from the council’s planning department, asking if we wanted to lodge any objection to the proposal to demolish the property. Of course I want to object in the strongest possible terms, but what is the point? No doubt the planning committee will throw out the demolition request, then the decision will go to some faceless bureaucrat who will instantly overrule the council. We have already been through the rigmarole of writing protest letters and attending meetings, yet it achieved nothing. This community has been completely disempowered.
The whole episode makes a mockery of ministerial talk about local democracy. I chatted to my local councillor, Tom King, the other day, and he is utterly disillusioned. ‘What’s the point of the planning committee? Why do I bother?’ he rightly asked. Sadly, this bureaucratic eagerness to ride roughshod over the democratic planning process is happening all over the country, as the government presses on with the policy of enforcing centralised targets for house-building, with three million new homes to be constructed by 2020. In the London suburb of Bromley, for instance, the government’s inspector recently overturned a decision by the borough to block a scheme to build 800 new homes on a greenbelt site. Bromley Council’s leader Stephen Carr said that ‘local opinions have once again been ignored and this will change the area for ever’ — exactly what we feel in Westgate. Speaking like an official from the old Eastern bloc, the planning inspector complained that Bromley had ‘failed to deliver’ on targets for new homes over the last decade, so had to submit to more development.
The approval of our neighbours’ plans also makes a nonsense of all the ministerial blather about protecting the environment. What could be less green than destroying a garden and pulling down trees to put up some modernist slabs? And where will all the new flat-owners park their cars? I am told by property experts that a common — and all too Orwellian — bureaucratic ruse is to classify as ‘a brownfield site’ any area of land earmarked for development in a village, town or city, even if the space is emerald green, as in the case of our neighbours’ plot. We can see this in the scheme to build a network of 15 eco-towns across England, which will each provide between 5,000 and 20,000 new homes. For all the green veneer, these new developments will just be yet more soulless, atomised housing estates of the type that now predominate throughout the country. Typical is the plan for a new town on the site of Pennbury in Leicestershire, which, promises the government, will be built on ‘brownfield’ land once used by Leicester airport. But ‘brownfield’ is a fraudulent misnomer in this case. In truth, the old runways and other airfield hard structures make up less than 3 per cent of the land to be used, the rest being green countryside. Little wonder that the world-renowned architect Lord Rogers has described eco-towns as ‘one of the biggest mistakes that the government can make. There is no way they can be environmentally sustainable.’
The greatest absurdity of all is the government’s argument that this development tyranny is justified by supposed ‘housing need’. We are told by ministers that there is a chronic housing shortage in this country, with a disastrous shortfall in the required number of new homes being built every year to meet the demands of a rising population. Well, if that were really true, it would be a difficulty entirely of the government’s making, for recent population increases have been the result of Labour’s decision to promote mass immigration. If the government really believes that there is a growing crisis in housing supply, it could resolve the problem quickly by re-establishing proper border controls. But in truth, the whole idea of a housing shortage is just a myth, as proved by the present downturn in the market. Most of the big development companies seem to think that there are too many homes in Britain, not too few, hence their drastic cuts in building programmes. Persimmon, for example, has stopped all building on new sites until the market revives, while the number of new housing starts fell by 25 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Prices of new flats, particularly in speculative developments, are plummeting, sometimes sinking to less than half their value of two years ago. And according to the government’s own estimates, there are at least 800,000 empty properties in Britain, hardly a sign of a housing shortage.
Labour’s mania for development has never really been about meeting genuine needs, though. Like immigration and multiculturalism, it is a vehicle for destroying our national heritage, crushing our landscape and architecture beneath the modernising bulldozer. The government might use the language of socialist concern in its determination to concrete over much of England: ‘we will be letting families and future generations down if we don’t act now’, reads one recent policy paper calling for millions more homes. But in truth, ministers have only revealed their contempt for our environment, our history and our democracy.