Kevin Fitzgerald is the Honorary Director of the Hertfordshire Branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) of which I am a member. Three times a year he takes a group of us on a walk around some of the beautiful and priceless parts of the county. In the spring we walk round an area that is under specific threat from developers. In the summer we just enjoy rambling on a long midsummer evening. And in the autumn we admire the display of autumn leaves in their myriad colour scheme. Invariably we end the walk in one of our delightful surviving pubs.
Back in the spring Kevin told me of his concerns about the current Government’s approach to planning. This was vindicated in March when George Osborne announced in his budget speech a whole raft of measures that will affect the planning system, and particularly the future of the English countryside. They include:
· Scrapping national targets which encouraged developers to build a proportion of housing on previously developed brownfield land, in preference to greenfield sites.
· Establishing a new presumption in the planning rules that "sustainable" development projects will be approved without defining what this means.
· Piloting a scheme for auctioning public sector land with planning permission. These will allow councils to auction off land with planning permission to encourage more areas to be developed. Depending on the pilots this could eventually lead to councils auctioning land they have acquired from private owners to developers with the promise of planning permission- and then sharing in the profits.
Kevin’s concerns were further vindicated when in July CPRE was alarmed to see a leaked Government document which shows that crucial national planning policies are being watered down so that the default answer to development will be ‘yes’. CPRE is now really worried that if these proposals are carried through, local councils and communities will be largely powerless in the face of development pressure. This could put huge swathes of the countryside up for grabs.
Ministers talk vaguely about maintaining the green belt but their ambiguity could be taken to mean that it is simply pushed ever wider. There will always be a green belt but eventually it might be a single thin green line between Greater London and Greater Birmingham.
CPRE is one of the country’s leading environmental groups with 60,000 supporters nationwide. CPRE Hertfordshire seeks to
· Promote the beauty, tranquillity and diversity of rural Hertfordshire by encouraging the sustainable use of land and other natural resources in town and country.
· Operate through the planning system, screening planning applications countywide and raising the alarm where the countryside is threatened.
· Influence planning policy through the local development process.
· Offer advice and support to individuals and local groups embarking on planning campaigns.
· Lobby for sustainable transport policies and safer country lanes.
It has enjoyed considerable success in recent years and been able to prevent the building of large scale developments in designated green belt environments. The members are not just individuals with a Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) attitude. We understand the need for development. But we believe it must be sustainable and need not threaten the already diminished countryside particularly in the overcrowded South East of England. Many of the housing development plans we see are completely devoid of planning of the most basic infrastructure let alone the hospitals and health centres, schools and libraries, sports facilities and playgrounds etc.
I can understand how the coalition government, anxious to encourage economic growth and hearing the noisy lobbying of businesses who see planning regulations as hostile to such growth, might be persuaded to revise the planning regime. But they should think again. They are hiding their proposed changes under the guise of localism, the concept that decisions are best made by local people in their own communities. But the resources are simply not there to construct the comprehensive local plans that will deal with every eventuality. Consequently well-resourced conglomerates like supermarket chains and international construction firms with legions of lobbyists at their disposal will run rings round local councillors and officials who work part time for expenses. I recall being amazed when a local town councillor admitted to me that the decisive factor in permitting a major supermarket chain to build a branch in the centre of our lovely town was its offer to construct a skateboard rink in the park. Now, just a few years later we have lost our local butchers, bakers and greengrocers while the odd hooded youth can occasionally be seen sporting his skateboard in the park nearby.
The trouble is that the government seems to be opening the way to a planning free-for-all and development at any cost. Yet some planning rules are essential to protect the countryside and stop developers covering it with bricks and concrete. Once the concrete is laid the grass beneath it will never be seen again.
The proposed "default yes to development" could open up thousands of hectares of countryside for building. Scrapping national brownfield housing targets adds pressure on councils to allow building in the countryside.
Worse still is the requirement that all bodies involved in planning will be expected to prioritise growth and jobs. This means that councils may have to allow development that they would otherwise reject on sensible environmental grounds. Allocating scarce resources solely on the basis of economics is not the sign of a sustainable society and certainly not a Big one.
CPRE does not just want to persuade Government to drop or change their proposals. It wants to persuade them that a strong and democratic planning system – reformed and modernised where necessary, and involving local communities – is essential to protect the countryside, promote urban regeneration and improve our quality of life.
Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved