Quote of the Day:
“I stand by all the misstatements that I’ve made”
In the midst of the most pressing economic, social, political and constitutional crisis since Henry VIII dissolved the Monasteries and declared himself as Head of the Church of England mainly as a means of pushing through a contentious divorce which saw him tied to closely to Europe… Phillip Hammond today delivered the Spring Statement.
Without a spring in the step of anyone in Parliament as far as we can make out, and with Theresa May looking like she would rather be anywhere other than the Commons (and sounding like her voice had already left the building), Hammond went somewhat rogue, alluding to himself voting for no ‘no deal’ and acknowledging the death of the May deal. It would seem that the countdown clock for Theresa May’s resignation is ticking loudly all over Westminster and even right next door to Number 10.
Following the usual fluff about what a great economic position we continue to be in and how robust our economy is, he got down to the action plan.
The three year spending review, due to be launched in the summer, is predicated on a Brexit deal having been agreed. I would say this has a 50/50 chance of actually taking place in the summer at best. Hammond is also, rather optimistically, basing spending figures on the assumption that we will receive a ‘deal dividend’, in reality this is likely to just mean that we won’t face an economic apocalypse so may have some money to spend.
So, in times of great economic uncertainty, the Government will take the Roosevelt New Deal approach, investing in infrastructure as a means of keeping the economy moving – in every sense. This isn’t actually a bad strategy – it is just a shame it takes an acute crisis to get government to really move their backsides on infrastructure investment. Elsewhere, the Brexit effect looms large, with the majority of funding going to the regions and in particular the Oxford-Cambridge arc. Likely to be regarded less cynically than the – well thought through but politically manipulated – stronger towns initiative which was announced last week.
Moving on to address the immigration and skills debate regarding Brexit, the Chancellor announced the abolition of the visa cap for PhD level roles as well as a series of measures to make it easier for people to get into the country (oh the irony).
The Statement also focused on technology, investment in research and digital regulation, aiming to set the UK on its own course and shore up some of the major investment programmes which are currently threatened by Brexit.
As the top domestic agenda item, housing got a mention with the announcement of a £3bn affordable homes guarantee scheme (extension of an existing scheme rather than something new), the launch of the £1bn fund to encourage SME housebuilders, which was announced at the Budget and over £700m from the Housing Infrastructure Fund focused on bringing forward development on sites in West London, Cheshire, Didcot and Cambridge along with a new CaMKOx Vision Statement (a vague ‘vision’ setting out the geographical area, core areas of focus and a commitment to collaboration – but no actual indication of any real governance structures beyond a Joint Advisory Panel). Ultimately, this needs to evolve into something with funding, governance and strategy behind it if there is going to be any real co-ordinated and fast-tracked delivery rather than leaving it all to developers to masterplan and promote. But why let small issues of reality interfere with policy.
Hammond also hinted at the inclusion of measures within the forthcoming Environment Bill which will govern how infrastructure and housing can be brought forward without damaging biodiversity. This is likely to build on the Clean Growth Strategy which has been much discussed recently.
However, it was what wasn’t said but was quietly put out in the accompanying Written Ministerial Statement which was actually more interesting and which responds directly to some of the loose ends following the Budget. Hammond confirmed that ‘over the coming months’ (which you could read to mean anything from tomorrow through to 2021 depending on whether the Government holds on, collapses, changes leader, announces an election…) they will:
- Introduce guidance responding to the Letwin Review – we would expect this to identify the different products which should be sought on larger sites and some form of commitment to delivery within specific timescales.
- Introduce enhanced PDR, particularly focusing on upward extensions (technically they are responding to the consultation which could mean they don’t introduce greater PDR but this seems unlikely. The detail on this will be critical, particularly in terms of how it sits alongside the push to improve and support the High Street through planning.
- Publish an ‘Accelerated Planning Green Paper’; this appears to be likely to focus on planning procedures rather than planning policy, which is arguably the area in most need of reform (and investment) if government really wants to deliver on its housing numbers.
- A new Future Homes Standard (shhhhh, don’t say Code for Sustainable Homes) will be introduced by 2025 building homes with low carbon heating and ‘world leading levels’ or energy efficiency. Effectively, this means that anyone planning any large scale development, likely to have a build out time post-2025, will need to be taking this future-proofing into account.
It would be handy if we could see what the detail on all or any of this actually meant but, given we are leaving the EU in less than 400 hours and still don’t know to what end, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the paucity of information.
Given all that is happening and the utterly dire situation of the government, Labour continue to trail in the polls. Which is remarkable really. Currently, The Independent Group (or the TIGgers as I prefer to call them) are polling 14% despite not actually being a political party. The polls (or more importantly the Bookies) suggest that, should there be a General Election tomorrow, the Tories would win a majority – with or without Theresa May. To put that into context, we are more likely to vote in a PM who has no control over her party, no ability to negotiate with the EU, no control over parliament and arguably no longer any control over her own kitten heels, than have a Government led by Jeremy Corbyn. As I see it, we have two choices – anarchy, or we persuade Martin Sheen to play Jed Bartlett in real life and become our PM. I’m going for option two…