While the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is the public face of the move to launch a Conservative revolution of the planning process, one of its central architects is a softly spoken, bespectacled young thinktank operative who only joined the government in February.
Jack Airey was hired as a special adviser against the backdrop of Dominic Cummings’ shake-up of the Downing Street apparatus. Yet a report co-authored by him and published in January by the thinktank Policy Exchange is regarded as a precursor of the overhaul announced on Thursday.
In Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century, Airey sketched out plans for a bonfire of red tape and a future in which “development rules should be clear and non-negotiable”.
Throwing out the notion that specific uses should be attached to individual private land plots, he wrote, “Market conditions should instead determine how urban space is used in the development zone.”
Before that report, he had also been regarded as one of the drivers of a “building beautiful” agenda, co-authoring in 2018 a Policy Exchange paper with the late Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.
Thursday’s white paper owes much to the recommendations of a Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission subsequently chaired by Scruton, which called for measures to “end ugliness” and a planning “fast track for beauty”.
Though coming from a thinktank known for its rightwing tilt, and as a platform for strongly pro-Brexit positions, Airey himself does not fit with the caricature some on the left might be tempted to paint. He has, for example, pushed back at the notion that immigration has been at the centre of the housing crisis and called for the building of new homes rather than “pulling up the drawbridge”.
Nevertheless, he has spoken of his surprise at feeling what he described as the “full throttle of some parts of the architectural community”, following his work with Scruton.
“I knew it existed but I was taken aback by some of the things some people have said,” he recalled in one interview with an architect’s podcast, in which he spoke of his proposals being labelled “fascistic”.
Judging by the initial reaction to the government’s white paper, his latest ideas might yet become the focus of even greater heat.