With the party conference season just starting, what’s in store for the industry?

Any fear that the distance from an election year would render 2011’s political party conference season a sideshow - for the industry as well as for voters - has been banished by the vehemence with which the national press turned on the government’s proposed planning reforms this week.

With David Cameron standing accused of a bid to “rip out the lungs of England”, the pressure is on the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to answer critics who fear the planned presumption in favour of development in the National Planning Policy Framework will lead to swaths of green belt land falling victim to an unstoppable tide of housing and other developments. The industry, which naturally is in favour of the reforms, has equally come under fire, with developers that have donated money to the Conservatives over the last three years being accused of “greasing the party’s palm” to push through the controversial measures.

The sector is obviously going to support the principles behind reforms that make it easier to develop land (even if some are looking for tweaks to the detail). For an industry that is still likely to be two years from a recovery, it is vital that the planned changes go ahead. But the industry never asked for an overhaul of the planning system, a fact that seems to have been conveniently overlooked by those so quick to assume a cosy relationship between developers and politicians. It was the government’s desire to abolish regional spatial strategies (RSSs) and their housing targets that made a presumption in favour of development necessary, as a way to counter concern that local politicians would have no reason to support developments. The industry campaigned heavily against the abolition of RSSs, but when Eric Pickles went ahead with the move anyway the quid pro quo was that the presumption in favour would be brought in to ensure that homes still got built.

Of course, it’s not just the industry that needs housing schemes to go ahead. The point was made quite bluntly by someone who last week defaced a petition displayed by the National Trust at Knowle House, Kent, calling for people to campaign against the reforms. Scrawled across it, standing out from the politely phrased defences of our national heritage by visitors to the tea room, were the words: “We need to build homes!”. Ok, the national press would probably have it that it was written by an agent of the British Property Federation, but it states an inescapable fact.

Another inescapable fact is that, with the final nail in the coffin for RSSs imminent with the Localism Bill, the presumption in favour is now vital. The reality is that this is no longer a choice over whether to reform - the reform is half done already. Unless it is completed, we will be left with a worst-case scenario, in which local politicians have little pressure to allow development and retain complete power to stop it - with the result that homes simply will not get built in the volumes the country needs.

So, despite the media outrage and the scrutiny that will only intensify as the conference season swings into action this weekend, the government needs to hold firm on its proposals.

Otherwise, a much bigger crisis than some difficult headlines will lie in wait.

Sarah Richardson, deputy editor

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