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.