One of the most distressing terms to any political pragmatist must surely be ‘u-turn’; a u-turn is what any politician, party, or government do when they change their stances or opinions, or alter policies – at all, seemingly. The media love u-turns because they are able to paint the turner as being spineless and lacking in faith in their values – and we all hate that, apparently.
The trouble with u-turns is that the label is equally applied to situations in which reasoned debate leads to valid criticism and in turn to sensible policy alteration. Compromise – the holy grail of representative democracy – is thus imagined as a bad thing, and common sense is sacrificed for an image of strength and courage in one’s convictions, even if one’s convictions are half-cocked, un-thought out, or just plain dumb. But when a debate escalates into a conflict, politicians’ fear of u-turns deepens.
In the NPPF debate this is becoming a clear problem. The National Trust, CPRE and the Telegraph (notably) are committed to a hardcore assault on some relatively minor issues in the policy – implied in the language, rather than entrenched in the philosophy. The Tory leadership, meanwhile, are stuck to their guns claiming that the allegations are all false and that the NPPF is vital to the nation’s economic recovery, etc,
Somewhere in the maelstrom, the expert advice provided by the professional organisations (IfA, IHBC, RTPI, CBA, etc.) in the consultation is lost. Practitioners are forced to get behind the overblown media campaign of the NT and CPRE, and hope that they do a good job of defending the sector’s interests, or support the government’s original stance. Mainly, however, they just talk quietly amongst themselves at the sidelines of the debate.
The professional consultations were reasonably positive about the direction of the NPPF, pointing out a handful of reasonable points at which textual clarification would lead to a more seamless implementation and better protections from legal challenges – overall, not a great deal that would have been outrageously contentious. The DCLG select committee report, recognising most (if not all) of these concerns, was pragmatic and well reasoned.
But the NT campaign breeds responses like this from Tory MP Stewart Jackson (http://conservativehome.blogs.com/platform/2012/01/stewart-jackson-mp-the-national-planning-policy-framework-is-an-integral-part-of-this-governments-gr.html) and the subsequent NT response (http://ntplanning.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/sticks-and-stones/) shows how clearly adversarial the campaign is. The reasoned alterations proffered by a professional sector largely positive about the reforms are ignored in favour of a two-sided war of convictions, and the more that the Telegraph shout and scream, the more hardened against ‘u-turns’ the government will become.
Professional practitioners should be sceptical of the scale and ferocity of media furore surrounding the NPPF, to say the least. I’d call it downright damaging to the chances of seeing a positive policy emerge in the spring.