I know that no one wants to talk about Brexit at the moment but this blog needs to start with a reference to the book Guilty Men, written by ‘Cato the Younger’ and published in 2017.

Following the example of the well-known book of the same name from 1940 (a critique of the public figures who had failed to prevent World War II), the author damns all the people whose actions contributed to the leave vote in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. It starts with the key pantomime villains: Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Dominic Cummings et al with the result that, up to about midway through the book, Remainers can indulge their moral outrage at the people who they feel have got the country into its current mess. Some of the names that follow cause you to sit up: David Cameron (OK, fair enough), Angela Merkel (hmmm, I suppose so), Jean-Claude Juncker (all right, fair dos), Tony Blair (Hang on! What?!).

Blair may deserve his place in this book. He was always pro-EU – publicly, on occasion. How much he made the case for the benefits of being in the EU while in office will, I’m sure, be the subject of ongoing debate; however, in the face of strong Euroscepticism over decades from many public figures and sections of the British media, he and other Europhiles plainly did not do enough.

So, how does this relate to the ongoing debate around development? Well, local councillors of all political persuasions are increasingly likely to hail the delivery of the ‘goodies’ that are paid for by new housing or development – building affordable homes and new local facilities, for example – but very rarely talk in positive terms about the private housing that pays for those goodies.

Private housing schemes are usually referenced in terms of ‘we fought these proposals’, ‘we’ll limit the height of new development’ or ‘we’ll protect our green fields’. I have sat in on many planning committee meetings and, where an application is approved, it is often done in terms of ‘oh, all right then’ or ‘we’ve got no choice because we’ll lose if the applicant goes to appeal’. Is it any wonder that housebuilding approvals have hit a 15-year low given how few public figures actually make the case for it?

“Politics is the art of the possible”, to quote Bismarck, and politicians at all levels of government need to navigate complex sets of local priorities and community dynamics. People should always be able to fight their corner but politicians can help to change the language of local debate, which could make a big difference: Instead of, for example, “let’s fight this application” maybe the response to a housing project or local regeneration proposal could be “let’s get the most out of this for our community”?

It takes two to tango and the development industry can also play its part. Good quality design and build clearly help and so can shouting about new schemes that a developer is proud of, working with the local media or, perhaps, working through initiatives such as the Open House Festival. If a Council has backed a scheme, help them to demonstrate to their residents that their community is benefitting from development.

Changing the terms of discussion is not easy but the current debate, such as it is, has got us to a 15-year low in housebuilding approvals. Language is important and plays an important role in shaping attitudes to change – which, essentially, is what this is all about. We need to get it right. After all, no one wants to feature in a future version of Guilty Men.