Gordon Brown has worked hard to find a delicate balance between continuity and change since becoming prime minister, and his policies on eco-towns, Crossrail and the PGS show what a shrewd operator he is
Since taking over as prime minister in late June, Gordon Brown has been carefully working to position himself both as a figure of continuity and as an agent of change. This might appear paradoxical but it is entirely understandable. As chancellor of the exchequer for the past decade, Gordon has exercised a massive influence over the Labour government’s economic and social policies. He deserves great credit for presiding over an unprecedentedly long period of economic growth and rightly wants to reassure the public that the policies that delivered that success remain in place. Hence the continuity.
At the same time, he is understandably keen to establish his own style of government, different from that of Tony Blair. Some of the changes are to do with how the government presents itself – as more collegiate and with less spin. But there are also significant changes of emphasis in policy. Nowhere is this fascinating mixture of continuity and change more in evidence than in respect of the built environment.
So the latest Comprehensive Spending Review demonstrates a continuing commitment to investment in public services and infrastructure, and to established flagship policies such as Building Schools for the Future. Similarly the commitment to Crossrail puts the seal on the project that has long been recognised as essential to London’s (and hence the UK’s) economy, but which has proved hugely challenging to finance. The funding formula on which the decision to proceed is based – part government grant, part fare revenues, part business contributions – is a classic New Labour solution, and none the worse for that.
But for all the continuity, there are some significant policy shifts. Most obvious is the higher priority afforded to housing. This reflects the growing pressures of affordability and shortage in the housing market and a greater understanding of how crucial housing is to economic development and community cohesion. Much of the ground was prepared while Gordon was still chancellor. The Barker reviews, which he initiated, made the intellectual and economic case for an expanded housebuilding programme.
The eco-town concept will require a more sophisticated approach than the scattergun ‘one in each region’ prospectus currently on offer
But there are also some new ingredients. The eco-town concept is a clever response to the challenge of expanding housebuilding without this being seen as a threat to the environment. The anti-development lobby has for decades used environmental arguments to provide a fig-leaf to cover Nimby self-interest. In response the Labour government initially focused on urban regeneration and brownfield-first policies, successfully pushing up the proportion of new housing built on previously developed land from 55% to 75%. But brownfield sites are finite and insufficient to meet the housing needs of all areas. Hence the case for a new generation of new towns with a strong eco-friendly character.
So positive has been the response, that the number of eco-towns being proposed has been doubled from five to 10. There is still a long way to go to translate the concept into reality and this will require a more sophisticated approach to identifying the right locations, in place of the scattergun “one in each region” prospectus currently on offer. But the underlying thinking is sound, and given the leading role that UK consultants play in planning and developing eco-cities around the world, it is reassuring to know that some of that expertise will now be applied here in the UK.
Another significant change has been the adoption of a planning charge, based on the tariff principle, in place of the planning gain supplement (PGS). The demise of the PGS will be widely welcomed throughout the development industry. Although its objective was laudable – to secure a proportion of development gain to finance necessary infrastructure and social provision – it was widely recognised as a flawed mechanism that could have seriously impeded development in many areas, not least on complex brownfield sites. Recognising the force of the arguments against the PGS, which Gordon originally proposed when chancellor, and working constructively with the industry to develop an alternative, has been an astute shift of policy. After 60 years of failed attempts to find the right mechanism to capture a proportion of development profit, we might now be on the brink of a solution.
Nick Raynsford MP is chairman of the Construction Industry Council and a former construction minister