14 Oct 2011

New planning laws will be disaster

Mike Gallagher photo of Ruscombe Valley
We are now looking at where housing and employment must go in the District - places for some 3,200 homes needs to be found. There will be lots of discussion, debate and no doubt many campaigns. Locally we have the threat of significant housing numbers on several key sites like the Ruscombe Valley - more details will be available very soon when papers are published.

Things were bad but the changes being made by the Lib Dem Tory Coalition Government are very bad indeed. This looks set to be a charter for development. I recently read Green Leader Caroline Lucas' Guardian blog on the planning reforms - see here with links - for me it sums up the key arguments so I have copied it below along with a couple of other links on this topic. Click read more to see. There is also info re the National Trust's 'Up for Grabs' campaign and how to sign a petition against sweeping reforms to the planning system.

Planning reforms are bigger threat to our countryside than forest sell-off

Every field, hedgerow, marsh, heath and moor is jeopardised by these proposals – as is our local democracy

Given the public's emphatic rejection of the plans to sell off our forests, you might have thought the government would tread more carefully with its reforms to the planning system.

But no. The proposed new planning framework now out to consultation is, if anything, a worse threat to our countryside, because "economic development" (read "developers' profits") will override environmental protection not just for our woods but for every field, hedgerow, marsh, heath and moor in England. These plans will also help accelerate the decline of inner cities and high streets by encouraging more urban sprawl. And they are a further attack on local democracy.

No wonder so many people are up in arms. And it's not just conservation groups like the National Trust and campaigners in the Women's Institute who are appalled by the proposals. The speed and intensity of the backlash right across society - including the Telegraph's heavyweight campaign - is encouraging. In part, this is because the people have so many reasons to oppose the plans.

First, the framework ignores the fact that undeveloped land is a finite resource - as is the biodiversity and tranquillity that is lost when land is developed. If we use it now, it will not be there for future generations. The framework says: "Local planning authorities should plan positively for new development, and approve all individual proposals wherever possible."

But there is no way on earth this can be squared with the government's own definition of "sustainable development" as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

Second, the framework claims to have given more power to local communities. But the presumption in favour of developers is even stronger than under the current system, and local people will be at even more of a disadvantage against the companies who stand to make millions if development is approved.

And though the government has trumpeted "the end of top-down housing targets", it has created a new process for setting house-building targets which developers will be able to use to push through new building, whatever local people think.

The Greens certainly recognise the urgent need to build more homes in order to address the UK's housing crisis. But the main obstacle to this isn't the planning system, it's the lack of money - thanks in no small part to the government's decision to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%.

Third, making development on greenfield sites easier has a knock-on effect for inner cities, made worse because the national target for redeveloping brownfield sites is to go. Prioritising the re-use of land already developed was one of the few advances in planning in recent years. Ending this would be a disaster - the only winners being the developers who don't want the cost and trouble of clearing up brownfield sites.

The pro-development lobby has also built up the idea that planning rules have created a housing shortage. Again, there is no shred of evidence presented in the consultation that weakening planning controls will help those in substandard housing.

Instead, the government seems to believe in some kind of trickle-down effect - ignoring the reality that house-builders work for profit, and will build for those with money to spend, not those on low incomes.

Instead of riding roughshod over planning policy, the government should introduce a Land Value Tax (or LVT) - a levy on the unimproved value of land. This would put off developers from amassing huge unused land banks in the hope of profiting later, and encourage them to develop vacant and under-used land properly, or to make way for others who will.

As such, LVT ensures dilapidated inner city areas are returned to productive use, and reduces the pressure to build on undeveloped sites, thereby protecting our countryside. Instead of giving carte blanche to profit-hungry developers, let's use our tax system to deter speculative holding of land.

All in all, the planning reform proposals have to be some of the most ill-informed and counter-productive plans to come out of this government. The heart of the problem is that a clique of business pundits and developers has, for the past twenty years, been pushing the idea that the planning system is a major block to our economic success, with little credible evidence to back up this claim. But the steady drip of rhetoric and assertion has convinced Osborne, Pickles and the rest that this could be a way of pleasing the business community and giving a faltering economy a boost.

The developers are a powerful and wealthy lobby and the coalition will not want to make another U-turn. But the potential for the government's proposals to inflict profound and lasting damage on our natural landscape makes this a fight we need to win. And with conservation groups, media, and digital campaigners such as 38 Degrees all involved, there are plenty of ways to make your voice heard.

Sign petition

The National Trust petition calls on the Coalition Government to withdraw and rethink its proposed National Planning Policy Framework which would introduce a presumption in favour of development on unprotected greenfield sites and allow financial considerations to dominate the planning system.

Caroline Lucas commented: 'I share the National Trust's profound concerns about these proposals. Of course there is an urgent need to build more housing, but the main obstacle isn't the planning system, it's the lack of money - thanks in no small part to the Government's decision to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%. These alarming proposals, which include scrapping the policy of building on Brownfield sites before Greenfield sites and the duty to ensure that new developments minimise road traffic, would give the green light to countless inappropriate schemes in cherished landscapes. It is no exaggeration to describe the National Planning Policy Framework as a developer's charter.'

The National Trust wants the Coalition Government to:

- strike a better balance between economic, social and environmental considerations in the planning system
- abandon its principle of a default 'yes' to planning applications
- retain the 'brownfield first' approach to development
- ensure local plans are created by democratically elected and accountable representatives not businesses

To sign the National Trust's petition before the end of the public consultation on 17 October please visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/planning

See also links:

NPPF breaks pledge to protect Britain’s best farmland – Comparison with pre-election document shows government no longer plan to protect country’s best agricultural land from development

300,000 homes on green field sites - Campaign to Protect Rural England finds 230 major projects are already in the pipeline in anticipation of the Government’s new National Planning Policy Framework.

See this link for a Green view on the measures relating to flooding and SuDs:

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