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Complexity and contradiction are still the hallmarks of national planning policy

Paul Finch’s letter from London: Do you ever get the feeling that you are living in a parallel universe in which politicians have all gone slightly mad? Or sound as though they have?

Take last week’s budget, this week’s announcement about the National Planning Policy Framework, and various other policy initiatives and news reported in the papers, not least the sacking of Mr Cruddas, the man who could fix up a meeting with Sam and Dave for the sort of cash that Lord Levy asked for in the Blair era.

The first surreal note was struck by Mr Osborne’s announcement that he was introducing 20 per cent VAT on construction work carried out on listed buildings.

It has been a bizarre feature of UK tax for as long as anyone can remember that new construction is zero-rated, unlike work on existing buildings, which saves vast amounts of embodied energy and keeps carbon emissions under some sort of control. But at least listed buildings were exempt.

There have been campaigns since VAT began either to zero-rate refurbishment work, or alternatively to charge VAT on new construction.

Since that would affect house building, the sacred cow that has been studiously ignored as a grown-up subject for discussion by all the political parties since 1979, introducing VAT on it has been a non-starter.

Now, we are told, a huge new town will be built to house the millions of people who wish to live in the West Midlands

One might have thought that looking after listed buildings, or indeed any existing stock, might get a bit of tax relief, considering the fuss ministers make about heritage and the importance of retrofit.

Not a bit of it. Whack on VAT at 20 per cent and watch the money roll in. This is particularly piquant, given the report in the Sunday Times that the government wants to stick up to 8 inches (imperial measures, of course) of external insulation onto millions of pre-1919 homes in the battle for carbon reduction. 

Well, why not? But isn’t it odd (perhaps the heritage minister will eventually say something about this) to find English Heritage and conservation groups being hit over the head twice: first by being told their VAT exemption is over if they want to keep their listed buildings in good repair; and second that, in the interests of energy conservation, aesthetic appearance may not matter much after all.

This will come as news to people who have been told for years that, because their homes are listed, they cannot even install double glazing – surely an abuse of their human rights, especially given that they can be required to carry out essential works to keep their buildings in good order.

You couldn’t make it up, as they say. Except that you can, by listening to what the politicians say about planning, and then what they are proposing to do.

On the one hand there has been a veritable barrage of speech-making about how green belt will be safe in government hands, whatever the Daily Telegraphand the National Trust have been saying about the long-awaited National Planning Policy Framework. I had thought the objectors had gone way over the top. But now, we are told, a huge new town will be built between Birmingham and Coventry to house the millions of people who apparently wish to live in the West Midlands.

The side effect, which would be to create a continuous urban zone on what is now green belt, is necessary to make the most of High Speed 2, the world’s costliest project to reduce travel time between two major cities by not much at all.

Why don’t they fill up Birmingham and Coventry and leave the green belt alone? Truly, as Richard Rogers is wont to say, all architecture is politics.

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