Planning reform: a victory for conservationists, but beware the calm before the storm

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Some (moderately) good news! The Government published the final version of its new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) yesterday and it is a paramount improvement on earlier drafts.

What is more, the DCLG has managed to squeeze it in to even fewer pages (a mere 49 compared to 52), proving that as far as planning is concerned, size really isn’t everything.

The Telegraph is tickled pink. The newspaper’s 'Hands Off Our Land' campaign, which I have lauded on these pages before, provided a sustained and important outlet for opposition to the Government’s clumsy proposals last summer. The new NPPF, says the paper’s leader, “strikes a far healthier balance between development and the environment.”

Environment correspondent Geoffrey Lean hails the Telegraph readers who “refused to be fazed” during a seven-month “bloody battle” with a Government that “veered from amazement to anger”.

The Chancellor and Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, immediately announced: “No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle.” Meanwhile, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, called objectors “semi-hysterical”, the planning minister Greg Clark accused them of “nihilistic selfishness”, and his junior, Bob Neill, blamed “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups”.

In the Times (£), columnist Alice Thompson declares ”the circle has been squared” by the “genial” Greg Clark, the “Clark Kent of politics” who has “achieved the impossible” by reconciling the divergent interests of big property developers and conservationists. She closes by suggesting mischievously that Mr Clark should be considered for the Department of Health, to “see if he can also achieve the impossible there”.

Meanwhile Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust and perhaps the single most vocal critic of the initial proposals, unsurprisingly devotes his Guardian column to declaring victory for conservationists over the “cowboy lobbyists”.

What last summer read like a builder’s manifesto has been replaced with proper planning guidance.

The builders’ lobby customarily seizes on housing shortage to argue for freeing the countryside for construction. But there is no shortage of land - only of land builders can most profitably develop, and that is rural land.

But Sir Simon warns that, of course, “the proof will be in the eating”. There are still fears for what even these vastly improved reforms could unleash if local authorities and communities, given only twelve months to get local plans together, cannot stand up to powerful developers. Localism is only a virtue if you have strong locals.

The Daily Mail is a lone dissenter among the leader columns:

…Those who stand to gain most are get-rich-quick developers…[and] the biggest losers will be the lovers of England’s countryside…

No amount of ministerial bluster can disguise the acute threat to the countryside - a heritage as precious as our language - contained in the order that there must be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

I have written elsewhere why there is no such thing as sustainable development. And as Sir Simon Jenkins wrote last summer, “the only sustainable meadow is a meadow”.

But sustainable development will always be a woolly concept. We cannot truly determine sustainability in the present; that task is left to future generations. We make do with best guesses. Therein lies the risk. Yet such an existential risk would have existed whatever the Government had written down in its planning guidance.

As it happens, by making explicit recognition of the coalition’s updated sustainable development strategy, the wording is tighter and less open to abuse.

What other improvements are there in the final draft? I wrote for the Richmond Magazine last month that recognition of the “intrinsic character and beauty” of ordinary landscapes (i.e. the 55 per cent of the countryside not protected by National Parks and the like) would be crucial to any breakthrough.

That recognition has been restored, along with a brownfield-first policy, stronger protection for the Green Belt and playing fields, and the ‘default yes’ to development has been removed.

These are all revisions to be celebrated. Nonetheless, there are many challenges ahead. When he delivered the Budget last week, the Chancellor was very clear that whatever concessions were made in the final NPPF, development would still be easier, not harder. That remains true.

If localism is to have any worth whatsoever, then local communities need to work flat out in the coming months to be ready. The Daily Mail's negativity (or nihilism) goes too far, certainly. But this could well turn out to be the calm before the storm.

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Lib Dem MPs have time to mount assault on planning reforms but they must act fast

Nik Darlington 10.59am

The Independent has got its hands on a confidential Liberal Democrat report that describes the Coalition’s planning reforms as “unacceptable” and in need of radical revision.

The report was written by Annette Brooke, the Lib Dem MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole and co-chairman of the Lib Dem parliamentary committee on communities & local government. Particular criticism is aimed at the National Planning Policy Framework’s (NPPF) ‘presumption in favour of development’.

There is insufficient conformity throughout the document as to what sustainable development means… The language of sustainable development morphs into references to the importance of ‘sustainable economic growth’… The language of the document needs to be tightened up throughout to indicate that whilst economic growth is important it does not necessarily equate to sustainable development. 

This criticism of language goes to the heart of the problem that groups such as the National Trust, the CPRE, the Woodland Trust and the RSPB have with the draft NPPF, which is expected to be finalised in February. Nobody can reasonably oppose new housebuilding in toto. However, when more than one million housing plots are available on brownfield sites, it is reasonable to argue about where these houses should be built.

The Government is affording protection to existing National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The Prime Minister has also given assurances that the Green Belt will not - to paraphrase a former Labour Deputy PM - be built on.

Yet serious concerns remain. The vagueness of the new planning guidance, particularly the notion of ‘sustainable development’, means these protections are not as clearcut as Ministers might claim. A leading barrister has claimed that the NPPF could make the Green Belt more vulnerable and even National Parks could be at risk.

As MP for a large town and precious surrounding countryside, Annette Brooke will understand keenly the importance of sound planning to prevent unsightly urban sprawl. Dorset remains one of Britain’s jewels because its conurbations are relatively compact, with swathes of unadulterated countryside in between. Even motorways don’t deign to intrude on Thomas Hardy’s domain.

However, another flaw in the NPPF puts the cherished Dorset landscape under threat. This is that local authorities must have local plans in place in order to supersede the framework. According to CPRE Dorset, only Poole and West Dorset have local plans in place. Nationwide, only around half of councils have these plans. Where plans don’t exist, the default answer to a planning proposal should be ‘yes’, according to the NPPF.

The Government’s planning reforms have purportedly been put together to answer the question posed by the country’s housing shortage. In reality, it is an attempt to engineer a massive construction programme into a growth strategy that is struggling to produce results in the prevailing chilly economic climate.

The Coalition’s junior partners are variously described to have too little or too much influence on Government policy. Whichever side of that fence you stand, their’s is a chequered record. For instance, the student finance reforms were fudged to the tragic detriment of students and institutions to save Lib Dem face. On the other hand, the healthcare reforms were decidedly improved by their interventions in the Commons and the Lords. Lifting lower paid workers out of income tax is one of the Coalition’s best policies, whereas the AV referendum was one of its biggest wastes of money.

Here is an opportunity for Nick Clegg’s party to make another positive impact on Coalition policy. It is no secret that many Conservative MPs and some Ministers are angry - not only with the NPPF itself but how it has been presented. The war of words between Ministers and opponents such as the National Trust has been at times unsavoury and unbecoming.

If Liberal Democrat MPs mount a serious assault on the planning reforms - and they only have until next month - they will have a willing audience in Parliament and in the country.