Eric Pickles delivered his statement on housebuilding with the adoring gaze of new planning minister Nick Boles fixed on him throughout. Boles was leaning forward eagerly, drinking in every word the Communities Secretary had to say about today’s announcement. Sitting next to him on the front bench, Don Foster, who also joined the department this week as an impressively-like-for-like replacement of Andrew Stunell, barely looked up at all from his Blackberry.
MPs raised a little cheer when Pickles responded to questions from Labour about the future of the green belt. ‘I can confirm that we will protect the green belt in line with that commitment in the coalition agreement,’ he said. He explained that the government would support councils who chose to use their existing freedoms to swap green belt land around, as the Chancellor did at the weekend. Labour, he argued, ‘represented the heavy hand of centralism’. He then spread out his arms and pushed his torso forward, announcing ‘I represent muscular localism’. MPs hooted. Boles went pink with pride at his new boss. Foster continued to jab and frown at his Blackberry. Pickles cracked plenty of other jokes along the way, causing Lib Dem backbench housing spokeswoman Annette Brooke to roll her eyes with mock despair when he told her that the result of allowing developers to bypass section 106 agreements that they felt rendered a development unviable would be ‘a touch of realism’.
The Secretary of State was in a good mood this afternoon, clearly happy he could stand up in the Chamber and tickle the tummies of MPs by saying he was protecting the green belt. But Policy Exchange – Nick Boles’ old haunt – is warning that 2012 will have the second lowest annual level of new homes since the Second World War. Although today’s announcement is as much about using housebuilding to stimulate growth as it is about increasing the supply of new homes, if that supply continues on the downward trajectory plotted in the graph below, the new planning minister may start showing off how very muscular he is on planning policy, too.
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