Tuesday, 15 September 2009


Just when you thought some lessons might have been learned from the MPs' expenses scandal, we get a crass piece of politicking that will make people even more sick of politics than they are already.

This week, the Conservatives' spokesperson for communities and local government, Caroline Spelman, sent a letter to Conservative 'colleagues' (leaders of Tory-controlled councils, basically), telling them what an in-coming Conservative government would do on planning issues and giving them some advice on what to do with regional planning over the next few months. And for good measure she made sure the letter reached a far wider audience, including (indirectly) the likes of me.

Now let's be fair here. I am not having a go at Caroline Spelman for her inability to tell the difference between a nanny and a secretary; you may recall at the height of the expenses scandal that she was found to have been paying a nanny out of public funds while calling it secretarial work. That left a bad taste in the mouth, but she's been moved from party chairman to this new role, and she's entitled to start with a clean slate.

Nor do I disagree with everything the Conservatives are proposing to review, as I believe the regional spatial strategies are flawed and should be reviewed in some shape or form.

What I am objecting to is the cavalier approach she takes to guidance from central government simply because it's not a government of her party. She is effectively asking Conservative councils - well, any councils really - to disregard what the government is asking them to do, and play for time so they can be rescued by a new Conservative administration sometime next spring.

Leaving aside the fact that I'm not entirely sure a Conservative government would abolish the house-building targets in the regional spatial strategies - after all, does the Tory party receive no contributions from developers, who would want their pound of flesh if the colour of the governing party changes? - this is tantamount to making Britain ungovernable!

We have an elected government, and however much we dislike that government, or find the system by which it is elected unfair and unrepresentative, it is the government. So when it orders councils like Wealden District Council to undertake a consultation on where future housebuilding should be concentrated, who is Caroline Spelman to say 'Oh, just play for time, we'll write it all off when we come to power'? She's effectively wasting the taxpayers' money that Wealden is spending on its consultation.

It's cynical - and hypocritical, as she would be spitting blood if non-Tory councils adopted the same approach if her party were in power.

However flawed the South East Plan is, we will have to have a certain amount of house-building to avoid serious social problems. Even the Conservatives signed up to 8000 houses for Wealden by 2026; the figure has since been raised to 11,000. Of course we must fight to protect the integrity of rural life, but that integrity will not be upheld by figures who want to be entrusted with power telling councils to ignore the will of our elected government.

Once again, I find myself wondering just how fit the Conservatives actually are to run the country.