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.

Growing Pains

Nik Darlington 8.15am

The Chancellor, George Osborne, will use a speech to the Conservative party conference hall today to announce, amongst other policies (an Osborne speech isn’t an Osborne speech without a few tricks up those sleeves) a further freeze on Council Tax until 2013.

Mr Osborne is also being prompted from all sides - stage right and left - to reformulate a strategy for growth.

His predecessor at No.11, Alistair Darling, wrote in the Independent on Sunday that the Chancellor is “not daft” and will be acutely aware, to use a nautical analogy of which the sailing lover Darling would approve, of the need to change tack. It won’t, of course, be presented as a “Plan B”; but no less a plan must be set out today.

The Labour party, Ed Balls in particular, has been playing on growth for some tome. Over the weekend, a pointed piece of advice has come from within the Conservative ranks. The Chairman of the powerful Treasury Select Committee, the usually discreetAndrew Tyrie, has insisted that growth plans are not working. He also attacked the ring-fencing of budgets such as healthcare and international development. The MP for Chichester is not alone on his party’s benches in being critical of the Government’s strategy. The mostly youthful grouping of Tory MPs dubbed as the “New Right” are demanding tax cuts to boost spending power of individuals and businesses. Described as economically and socially liberal - and ferociously ambitious - the “New Right” is drawn largely from the 2010 intake and includes historian Kwasi Kwarteng and Matt Hancock, a former (some might say current) advisor to Mr Osborne.

And this morning, the new director of the Institute for Directors, Simon Walker, was doing the round of TV & radio studios calling for a more explicit growth strategy, tax cuts, and a massive outlay on infrastructure such as roads and railways - a “ring-fenced” outlay, perhaps a more veiled criticism of ring-fencing other areas of spending.

Much has been made of the potential growth impact of High Speed Rail. The Government is also banking on a housing boom to stimulate economic activity in a nation reliant on its construction and property sectors, hence the acrimonious efforts to reform planning policy.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister and Paymaster General, mentioned both yesterday in a provocative interview to the IoS. Notwithstanding the curiosity of appearing to disown the ‘big society’ having only 6 months ago been arguably its most articulate advocate after the Prime Minister, Mr Maude went on a loose diatribe against opponents of HS2 and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in its present incarnation.

The National Trust (membership approaching 5 million) and other preservationist campaigners such as the CPRE and Woodland Trust are peddling “bollocks”, according to Maude. It is just the latest in a plethora if ill-advised inflammatory comments from Government ministers. The PM has offered a more conciliatory tone but he is being advised that the Tories’ political positioning will benefit from fisticuffs with the forces of darkness that are the National Trust, Jonathan Dimbleby and Bill Bryson.

And opponents of High Speed Rail are opponents of growth. A long thin island like Britain has to have it, he says.

As I write this on my way to catching a train to Manchester, I can’t say I’d be that bit more excited in the knowledge I’d reach my destination a few minutes quicker (and probably for a much higher price). I can’t say either that being in transit is stopping me from thinking purposefully and getting my work done.

On nearly every currently available basis, HS2 is promising to be a weaker option than alternatives, such as upgrading the West Coast Mainline. High Speed Rail to Edinburgh is a different matter, as it might genuinely dissuade people from flying to Scotland, but that is decades off.

And the planning shakeup is even worse. Ministers have bought into a development lobby fudge that the planning system is inhibiting growth, when limited access to credit, slack consumer demand and developers’ intransigence (greenfield gives higher profits) are the immediate barriers.

A more encouraging move is that announced yesterday by Grant Shapps, the housing minister - the Government will make available state-owned land for 100,000 houses on a “build now, pay later” scheme.

But if this Government really wants to stoke the economic furnace and provide infrastructure this country desperately needs, it should be looking seriously at Boris Johnson’s idea for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. Instead, ministers appear to view it with an air of amused disdain.

Britain needs more airport capacity and fast. An extra runway at Heathrow ought to be entirely off the table, whatever its owners seem to be hoping. Stanstead and Gatwick are unviable for expansion for environmental and logistical reasons.

A new airport in the Thames would cost as much perhaps as £50 billion but the effect on economic activity in those relatively depressed areas of Kent and Essex east of London, and beyond, would be immense. The environmental impact would be a concern but the least bad amongst the various trade-offs available and almost certainly preferable to the damage that would be caused by carving HS2 across the middle of England.

It would send out a message of a measure of ambition. If Mr Osborne wants an infrastructure driven dash for growth, he should fly east.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Britain must choose higher urban density instead of suburban sprawl

Stuart Baldock 6.03am

Demographers estimate that the UK population will increase to approximately 75 million by 2051. If this is true, the increase equals the population of two cities the size of London.

Therefore the UK is going to have to build many more houses. Even if demographers have over-calculated, life expectancy is increasing and there more households with single occupancy - both factors increase the demand for housing.

There is also the pressing need to enable first time buyers (FTBs) to get onto the property ladder. The typical FTB is now looking at having to pay over £150,000 for their first property - in London the average is more than £250,000. The average age for a FTB is now 35, and in London it is 43. This is partly a result of the lack of affordable credit, but the lack of suitable housing stock is critical.

The UK will soon be forced to answer the question nobody wants to confront: Are we favour of higher urban density or suburban sprawl?

The NIMBY argument that the UK is already developed enough is not one any political party can afford to entertain. Only 10 per cent of the UK is actually developed and this figure includes garden land - there is plenty of space to build more houses should we want to expand suburbs.

However, our preference ought emphatically to be in favour of higher-density development. Higher-density urban areas are more environmentally sustainable than suburban areas in the medium to long term (something that Nik wrote about recently). Whilst this assertion may seem counter intuitive, it is a popular misconception that because a suburban area is aesthetically ‘green’ - with grass, open spaces, trees etc - it is environmentally sustainable. The diametric opposite is true.

Compare emissions of climate altering greenhouse gases. As noted in a UN Population Fund paper published in 2009 “low-density suburban development is 2.0-2.5 times more energy and greenhouse gas intensive than high-density urban core development on a per capita basis”.

The typical Londoner produces in an average year only a little over half the UK average per capita of CO2. The per capita CO2 emissions of a London resident are approximately 6.18 tons - the UK average is approximately 11 tons.

This impressive statistic could be better still and the results emulated by other UK cities. It could be achieved by abandoning the very British fascination with suburbs and embracing high-rise / high-density city centre living such as has taken place on the continent.

The reason the average London resident produces less CO2 than the UK average is due to the proximity of their house to their place of work. Reduced travel distance = reduced CO2 emissions. Even suburban trains and metro’s emit CO2, a 5 mile journey by train emits 0.4kg of CO2 per person. The ultimate goal of urban development should be to make cities as compact as possible with as many people as possible living within walking or cycling distance to work. Not only will this have positive environmental benefits – it will have positive health benefits. An advantage urban dwellers have over their suburban counterparts is significantly lower rates of obesity and associated diseases.

It is true that the UK has not a comfortable history with high-rise / high-density developments. Many of the post-WW2 experiments in municipal housing have blighted the views of entire generations to high-rise living. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Aylesbury Estate in South-East London. It was described by the press in the 1980s and 1990s as “Hell’s Waiting Room”.

Other high-rise estates around the country have had similarly bad reputations. Many became known as areas of high crime, social depravation and depressive environments. Therefore it probably came as a shock to many residents and Ladbrooke Grove locals when in 1998, the Department of Culture Media and Sport, gave Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower a Grade-II* listing. This was due to the building being an early example of the ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture.

We should not let past mistakes cloud our judgement about the kind of city we need to build for the future. It should not be beyond the skills of architects to design buildings in which people today want to reside. It may though necessitate some rather draconian restrictions on building in the urban fringe, as well as some imaginative use of Section 106 agreements to get developers to construct mixed use high-density buildings.

Follow Stuart on Twitter @stuartbaldock

Removing rioters’ benefits will only make the ‘sick society’ sicker still

Craig Barrett 10.54am

Some 90,000 people have signed a Cabinet Office e-petition* calling for the removal of benefits from any person convicted of offences connected with the rioting and looting of the past week.

Not only is it dangerous for laws to be forced by those who can shout the loudest; there is a real danger that this is being seen as a sort of solution to the problem.

The correct way of dealing with unrest such as this is to implement the full force of the law. Charles Moore yesterday lamented the cessation of the word “force” as a description of what the police do - the typically New Labour substitution of the word “service” meaning that the police appear to be there to serve the community rather than their actual purpose, which is to enforce our laws.

The Prime Minister has spoken before of our “broken society” and yesterday went as far as to describe it as a “sick” society.

To take that analogy further, you do not heal the sick by kicking them out of hospital. Once the dust has settled and the smoke has drifted, you can bet that the analyses of the riots will identify motivations such as detachment - a feeling that the rioters are somehow beyond the cosy society we like to think we live in.

Removing people’s benefits will only serve to increase this feeling of detachment and augment a perception that “government”, “society”, “responsibility” and “law” are words for other people, words for those foolish enough not to fight for themselves.

Once this break has been made there is unlikely to be any going back. Then we would face an even harder battle to try to enforce the laws of the land and insist on responsible behaviour.

The solution is to give the police forces the proper powers of enforcement rather than leaving them as well-armoured bystanders who are prevented from doing their job for fear of ending up in the dock themselves. 

Eventually the rioters will be caught and punished. Indeed, magistrates courts are working at breakneck speed to deal with the sudden influx of prosecutions.

That being said, we must ensure that those people (many of them very young) who have chosen to riot, steal and injure do not find themselves entirely cut adrift from communities.

Removing benefits will simply further their extant detachment and, in all likelihood, force them to commit further criminal acts in order to survive.

You don’t fix what is broken by making people broke.

Follow Craig on Twitter @MrSteedUK

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*Egremont had trouble opening the Cabinet Office’s e-petitions webpage this morning, seemingly because of an unexpectedly high volume of traffic. Speaks volumes.

Winnie the Pooh can teach the Government a thing or two about environmental planning

Nik Darlington 6.00am

In the first Winnie the Pooh storybook, Piglet becomes stranded in a flood of biblical proportions. Holed up in his home, the water rising higher and higher, he fears the worst. Piglets cannot swim. Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear could climb trees; Kanga can jump very high; Rabbit could burrow; Owl can fly away; and Eeyore can make very loud noises to attract attention. Piglets are little helpless animals in comparison. So in desperation, Piglet scrambles for an old glass bottle into which he places a scrawled call for help. Off this bottle bobs and there Piglet waits, hoping that someone will come to his aid.

Elsewhere, Pooh Bear has been having a nap. He awakes to the drumbeat of heavy rainfall and water flowing into his house. On looking out of his window at the rising water levels, he knows he is in a ‘Serious Situation’. Pooh Bear escapes by climbing on to a branch, not forgetting, of course, to take provisions of ten honey jars with him. Four days later, the water has not subsided and Pooh Bear is still sitting there, honey supplies finished. A bottle floats past and Pooh Bear, thinking it to be another pot of honey, grabs it in his paws. It is Piglet’s note! Pooh Bear resolves to help but he cannot swim. So he uses his biggest empty honey pot as a boat and sets sail.

Pooh Bear soon comes across Christopher Robin’s home, which is situated on higher dry ground. Christopher Robin is so happy to see Pooh Bear and when he hears about Piglet’s plight, resolves to set out to rescue him straightaway. However, Pooh Bear’s honey jar is not nearly big enough to support him and Christopher Robin, let alone a Piglet too. What to do? Could Owl carry them on his back? No, says Owl, he couldn’t support them both. Then Pooh Bear has a rare brainwave: use Christopher Robin’s upturned umbrella as a vessel! It wobbles but it floats and off they set to save Piglet, who is naturally delighted to see them, and so ends this little Pooh Bear adventure.

This is a tale of friendship, courage and ingenuity under pressure. It also tells us a bit about environmental planning. The flood represents the onset of grave climatic change - or just bad flooding, like that experienced in places like Worcester or Cumbria in recent years, or on much greater scales in Pakistan and Australia. It is a lesson about man’s (or Piglet’s) helplessness in the face of Mother Nature’s full fury.

And like the relative weakness of Piglet compared to his friends, different peoples have different capacities to cope with damaging climatic change. For instance, the flooding in Queensland was horrifying but the humanitarian fallout cannot compare with catastrophic flooding in less developed regions of the world. Likewise, an earthquake in Pakistan is more devastating than in New Zealand or Japan, or even China.

Sometimes, this is a clear-cut development issue. Other times, how you cope with environmental disaster - or any environmental change, fast or slow - relies a great deal on how well you plan for it. Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear can both climb trees to escape the rising water but the former was in a superior position because he had the foresight to live on higher ground.

The point is that in this country, we face major environmental challenges in the years to come, such as rising population and climate change on a very small land mass with limited (and finite) natural resources. And in the UK, we are the Christopher Robins. The Pooh Bears of this world - and heaven help the Piglets - face even greater challenges.

The Government’s tentative responses to these environmental challenges have been presented in recent weeks, in the form of the National Ecosystem Assessment (which I reported on last month) and the Natural Environment White Paper. The former is an innovative quantitative analysis of the UK’s ecosystem services; the latter is essentially a push for greater localism in environmental planning and preservation.

The concern of some people, such as the Planning Officers Society, is that the localist approach, whilst well-intentioned, cannot produce the integrated action necessary to plan land use for the future. Instead of a cohesive approach, the drive for voluntary cooperation between existing local authorities and new bodies like Local Nature Partnerships, Nature Improvement Areas, and designated Green Areas, will produce a fragmented, inefficient response. The Localism Bill abolished Regional Spatial Strategies and whilst a new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is being established, it is not clear yet how it will work alongside the myriad local bodies tasked with managing ecosystem services and natural resources. Moreover, as interesting as is the National Ecosystem Assessment, and however potentially useful it is for environmental policymaking and planning decisions, there is a danger inherent in planning that is driven purely by economics. As George Monbiot has written, the true value of nature does not have a pound sign in front of it, and cost-benefit analyses are invariably rigged in favour of business. Smart accountants will always make development add up.

However ideologically unpalatable it is to some people on the political right, the natural environment increasingly requires centralised planning solutions, especially when considering infrastructure such as housing, transport and urban land use. I turn again to George Monbiot, who recently insisted on ‘strict urban planning to keep cities from collapse’. For too long, governments in the developed world have carelessly allowed conurbations to sprawl inefficiently outwards, instead of capitalising on the environmental efficiencies inherent in urban living by planning for high density cities.

Central governments will not always make the right decisions on strategic infrastructure and land use. That much is made clear by the misguided tunnel vision of the HS2 rail project, for which local objections should defeat central insistence. However, as competing demands for land increase in years to come, exacerbated by the effects of climate change and a rising population, central government cannot afford to leave important environmental decisions to (often grossly underfunded) local bodies.

The Scottish Government published in March its groundbreaking Land Use Strategy, a strategic national framework that recognises the complexity of land use and ecosystem management. There is no such joined up approach being offered by Westminster, where land use is covered piecemeal by the likes of Defra, DCLG, DECC, DoT and HM Treasury.

The author of Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne, once said that ‘organising is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up’. This coalition government has demonstrated a boldly pragmatic and non-ideological mindset since taking office. In several respects, not least in the localism agenda, it is proving to be one of the most radical and reforming of governments in many years. Nevertheless, there is a danger that on planning, the Government is ideologically dismissing an integrated approach in favour of extending responsibility to communities. Localism is great for running a local park. It might even stem construction on flood plains. Yet it cannot provide integrated national solutions to big strategic challenges.

Instead of the necessary umbrella solution that Pooh Bear deployed to save Piglet, if you will, we are presented with lots of smaller honey pots and shuttling around on Owl’s back. If Pooh Bear hadn’t had the ingenuity to use Christopher Robin’s umbrella, and instead had to come up with a fragmented, slower plan using different methods - ‘all mixed up’ - then tragically it could have been too late to save Piglet. So much for a happy ending.

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