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Planning reforms set up more skirmishes over house-building in the Garden of England and Labour woes in Kent

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It looks like we are in for another spell of political trench warfare in Kent over house-building targets after the government announced its plans for a shake-up of the planning system.

The reforms set out in the Queen’s Speech have already sparked dismay as they include plans that would see developers automatically given permission where they are in pre-determined zones allocated for growth.

House building is set to become an even bigger issue in Kent Picture: Bogdanhoda/iStock
House building is set to become an even bigger issue in Kent Picture: Bogdanhoda/iStock

The issue of how zones may be allocated is unclear but the view of some councils is that while they may get greater say over where they don’t want new homes they won't get much on where they should go.

The government’s rationale for this is that it believes the pace at which new homes are being built is too slow.

Accompanying notes released by the government about the proposals put it like this: “The current system does not lead to enough homes being built, especially in those places where the need for new homes is the highest. Adopted Local Plans, where they are in place, provide for 192,725 homes per year across England (as of March 2021) – significantly below our ambition for 300,000 new homes annually. As a result of this long-term and persistent undersupply, housing is becoming increasingly expensive.”

And there is the rub: too few homes mean property prices rise, putting them out of reach of those trying to get a foot on the housing ladder.

Why is this important? Politically, the Conservatives are keen to ensure that those voters who have backed the party in recent elections do not peel away.

The focus is firmly on those in the so-called red wall constituencies where the Conservatives made inroads into what had been traditional Labour seats.

And most of those seats are in the north of England rather than the south.

The calculation the government appears to have made is that it is more important to keep voters onside in these areas rather than elsewhere, despite the likelihood of triggering a backlash in the Garden of England.

So it is a case of standing by for a resumption of hostilities between council leaders, Kent MPs and the government.

So far as Kent County Council is concerned, the reforms represent an early test of the ruling Conservative administration’s election pledge to ensure “the quiet majority are heard on house-building.”

In its election magazine, KCC leader Cllr Roger Gough said: “Some communities welcome the growth and regeneration that comes with new housebuilding, but where a community says ‘enough is enough’ their voice should be heard.”

KCC leader Roger Gough (47163471)
KCC leader Roger Gough (47163471)

The implication here is that the current system is skewed too far to developers and the voices of dissent are often ignored.

The government also justifies its shake up as a necessary one as too few people are engaged in the issue, saying: “There is very little meaningful public engagement in the current planning system. At present only around 3% of local people engage with planning applications and for local plan consultations engagement can fall to less than 1%.”

It is doubtful that ministers would be able to find many in Kent who would accept that contention.

Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire. (47163608)
Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire. (47163608)

Seeing red: As if Labour did not have enough problems after its dismal election performance, the subsequent botched reshuffle that led to a toxic fallout only served to underline its difficulties.

While it endured a 'Frightful Friday' in the aftermath of ‘Super Thursday’ there are some who contend that in Kent, it might have done better had the national party put a bit more effort into the campaign.

As it was, local party chiefs were left to their own devices and the national party was in panic-mode over the extent of its losses in the north of England.

The focus on red wall seats inevitably shifted resources and attention away from the south east and the consequences in Kent were all too obvious.

The party continues to suffer from “southern discomfort” and it has to find a way of connecting with voters who were quite prepared to back Tony Blair in three successive terms but remain unconvinced by Keir Starmer.

KCC hq (47163403)
KCC hq (47163403)

On The Road: Stand by for the Kent County Council democratic roadshow coming to a town near you soon.

Well, maybe not.

But it seems contingency plans are being drawn up to relocate the council’s annual meeting later this month to Canterbury.

Why? It’s an issue to do with Covid and the fact that the council chamber in Maidstone is not big enough to ensure that social distancing regulations can be complied with.

Now that the government has blocked councils from holding virtual meetings permitted during the lockdown, KCC has little choice.

The meeting is the largely ceremonial civic centrepiece of the year and swears in the new chairman and vice-chairman and confirms the political leadership.

Moving it may be a problem KCC could do without and the logistics of finding a suitable alternative venue are sounding challenging.

But who knows? Perhaps this could be the start of a new rolling roadshow, bringing politics to the people.

Head to our politics page for expert analysis and all the latest news from your politicians and councils.

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