The conservatory party: Eric Pickles feels the heat over loosening of planning rules

Attempts to change rules governing extensions have met with resistance

Eric Pickles, an ebullient, often blustering Yorkshireman, was given two pieces of advice by his predecessor, Sir Robert McCrindle, when he became MP for the Essex constituency, Brentford and Ongar in 1992.

“The first was that when the sun rose I should always be found in my own bed, and the second was, ‘Never, in any circumstances, become involved in planning’,” he said this week.

But he has become involved in planning. Indeed, since he became secretary of state for communities and local government, it can be said that his life is dominated by it.

Given the geography of the House of Commons, ministers face forward when they are attacking the enemy and look back when they are in serious trouble with the people who are on their side. On Tuesday, Pickles was forced to spend all of his time turning back to Conservative backbenchers.


Last September he announced that he was going to change planning regulations to allow the construction of single-storey extensions of up to six metres, including conservatories, on to semi-detached homes without the need for planning. Local authorities, many of them Conservative-controlled, and organisations such as the Royal Town Planning Institute, criticised Pickles, arguing that he was opening the door to unsightly extensions and bitter rows over garden fences between neighbours.

In March, the House of Lords accepted an amendment from Lord True, the Conservative leader of leafy Richmond-upon-Thames Council, which would have allowed councils to opt out if they believed that such changes were inappropriate. On Tuesday Pickles offered compromise, but gave no details of what the final text would look like – a fact that left even one who once sat beside him at cabinet, former Welsh secretary Cherly Gillan, unpersuaded.

Saying the issue has caused “grief in the Chilterns”, Gillan went on: “I am afraid that we will not believe what he says . . . until we see the proposals in black and white.”

For Pickles, the changes to rules governing extensions – which would double the size of those allowed without planning being needed – would boost the economy.

However, Conservative MPs, including Andrew Bingham complained that "we could end up with a lot of small warts on properties" in hillside villages. Nine in 10 planning applications in England are approved, according to official figures, while the Local Government Association has argued that 22,000 building plans deemed unacceptable last year would have been cleared under the Pickles rules.

Some of those 22,000 did go ahead in amended form, the LGA points out, but only because the home-owner was prepared to make compromises to bring planners and neighbours onside – concessions that would not be required if Pickles wins out.

The extensions change is just one of a number from the Conservatives/Lib Dem coalition, which wants to dramatically increase not just the number of extensions but also the number of new homes being constructed.

However, the policy – designed to place control over local issues locally – is riddled with contradictions, since existing communities are often the ones who most vociferously object to new estates. From last month, since powers under the 2011 Localism Act came into force, local neighbourhood groups have been able to seek planning powers using their own rules without involving the local council at all.

Local democracy
Meanwhile, the policies encourage local democracy, as shown by the acceptance in a referendum last year of a development plan by 90 per cent of the locals covered by Upper Eden District Council in Cumbria. In other places, however, councils are in danger of losing control over all housing planning decisions because they have not created a strategic plan in line with the centrally imposed timetable.

Budget cuts are not helping, architects warn, since many councils will have reduced their planning department budgets by 60 per cent between 2012 and 2014 at the same time as central government is telling them to push ahead with development.

For now, Pickles has been given a reprieve on the extensions issue by Conservative MPs, since he managed to overturn the Lords amendment with a tight majority of 27 – though tempers will rise once more if he does not come back with genuine concessions.

He may find that his distress has just begun.