Power in planning goes to the powerful

The letters page in the Daily telegraph is not a place I go often. But in the last week or two, since the paper launched its ‘Hands off our land’ campaign, the correspondents have reflected the mood of insurrection in the shires.

The Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework is the cause of the deep rift in the Conservative Party.  Two great Tory traditions have collided – conservation of the countryside versus making lots of money from development.

The government has dug this deep hole for itself and Pickles/Shapps/Clark and co deserve no sympathy for their plight.  When they came to power they made constant attacks on Labour’s national targets, its regional planning approach and regional plans, which in my view had quite carefully balanced the need to build homes with the need to protect heritage and beautiful places.

At that time the Tory talk reflected the extreme version of localism, where local people would dictate what would get built and where, with just a few incentives, like the New Homes Bonus, to encourage them to build.  It felt like a nimby charter and that the net result would be very little development.  Indeed, some councils reduced their development targets massively and a few declared what was a virtual moratorium on new homes, especially new affordable homes.

It’s not clear when the penny dropped and the government realised that its approach was incompatible with building more homes.  This realisation was encouraged by some developers who increasingly, according to the Telegraph and others, fill the Tory Party’s coffers with rather more than pennies.  Anyway, they now seem to have swung right round to the opposite extreme.  There are accusations that government inspectors are ‘pressurising’ district councils into changing their core strategies to get more homes built.  The Telegraph says that they have ‘identified a number of rural councils which have been instructed to make changes to their core strategies by planning inspectors that will see them giving up countryside for development. The rulings have created deep tensions at some key Tory run councils with many councillors feeling frustrated at the centralised
interference
.’

For the anti-development lobby, the NPPF is wholly unacceptable because it says that planning must not act as an impediment to growth (i.e. development) and that there will be a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development.  Those that genuinely believed in localism, and thought this government would be the conservationists’ friend, feel betrayed and outraged at this new centralised imposition.

Although there is little doubt that the planning system could be streamlined and some of the fussier rules removed, Labour’s structure for planning is beginning to look like a well-oiled machine: national assessments of how many homes are needed, some strict central policy guidance like the target for building on brownfield land and protecting the green belt, a regional assessment of land capacity and the setting of targets for each area,
balanced by local influence over sites and specific developments.

The excellent Highbury Group on housing delivery has submitted comments on the government’s plans which seem to be the height of common sense.  They argue that the planning system needs to be plan-led and not led by desires of developers or even the general needs of the economy.  Plans need to be evidence-based, taking full account of demography, geography and the natural resources available.  They point out that sustainability is a subjective consideration and not a market phenomenon, and should be contextualised by the preparation of a proper hierarchy of national, regional and local plans.

Most studies of the capacity of areas to support housebuilding find more developable brownfield land than was previously believed, although that land is often harder to assemble into good prepared sites than the greenfield option.   Some greenfield (NB not Green Belt) land will be required but not so much that it will concrete over the countryside – far from it.  With imagination and determination, the development planning process can deliver the homes we need without ruining the countryside and the natural heritage.

The truth is that Labour was right all along, or at least a lot less wrong than the Tories, and the Party should be taking this opportunity to say so to the 3.8m members of the National Trust, the 1m members of the RSPB, and the 600,000 members of the Woodland Trust.

As the National Trust says: ‘We believe strongly that any development must meet the needs of people, the environment as well as the economy.  The Government has failed to do this in its reforms. It has put short term financial gain ahead of everything else. It has failed to protect the everyday places that communities love. Power in planning goes to the powerful.’  Spot on.

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