Planning Minister Nick Boles admitted yesterday that he did not believe his controversial suggestion for Britain to build homes on two million acres of countryside should be put into practice.
The new minister caused a storm last month when he supported a 3 per cent increase in UK-wide development to alleviate the housing shortages caused by high immigration.
The plan was to build homes on green-field land, increasing development from 9 per cent to 12 per cent nationwide. But yesterday, Boles denied the claims, arguing that they were meant to illustrate a wider point about under-development rather than create a particular policy or target.
His admission came after the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee on Tuesday that the Planning Minister was right that houses are going to have to be built on some protected sites. Appearing alongside Eric Pickles and the other local government ministers, Boles told a committee of MPs:
‘What I was doing was making an argument about how little developed this country actually is, contrary to many people’s belief, and how little land would be required to completely solve, for the foreseeable future, any housing problem at all. What I was not doing – and I want to be very, very clear on this because I absolutely passionately don’t believe it – is setting any kind of target or plan or expectation of what would happen, or might happen, or needs to happen over the next 20 or 30 years, which is the period I referred to.’
Responding later to challenges that he had based the argument on outdated figures, he added:
‘8.9 per cent of development is the truth, and my only argument – and Newsnight was an argument and nothing more – is that means – thank God, hallelujah, I am grateful for that fact – that means 91% of England is countryside, and isn’t that fantastic, and doesn’t that mean we shouldn’t be too worried about meeting our housing challenge.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Chairman, but you are quoting selectively from a film that was 10 minutes long and a discussion that was 15 minutes long, it was 25 minutes of the Newsnight program. I’m sorry, it is not what I said, it is not what I meant, it is not what we’re suggesting as a department.’
Clive Betts, the Chairman of Communities and Local Government select committee who led the heated session, picked up immediately on the similarities between Boles’ language and that used by the PM on Tuesday:
‘I heard what was said about there not being targets, that this was just raising an issue. That’s actually the exact answer the Prime Minister gave yesterday – you’ll be pleased to know – at the Liaison Committee, virtually the same words in fact.‘
Eric Pickles, who been silent during the five minute back-and-forth, interjected at this point to commend Boles for being ‘on message’, causing rapturous laughter from the panel of cross-party MPs. But the Secretary of State was keen to match Boles’ attempt to mend cracks in the coalition. During a tongue-in-cheek discussion about the department’s view of the Treasury, Pickles offered high praise for one Lib Dem colleague:
‘There are of course tensions inside the Coalition, and I sincerely hope that I’m not doing my colleague any damages, but I think Danny Alexander, inside the Treasury, has been an enormous advocate for localism and an enormous advocate pushing that through. We could not have done those deals together, particularly not got the business, without his considerable help.’