A housing boom could lose the Conservatives as many votes as it wins

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Luke Major

Britain’s rural landscape is under attack in the name of economic growth – despite David Cameron’s promise to lead the “greenest government ever.” The Prime Minister believes that the key to recovery is to build our way out of recession as was the case in the 1930s. But how much of our glorious greenery will we have sacrificed before we are satisfied with the rate of growth?

One significant cause of the threat to rural Britain is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Put forward in March 2012, with a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development, it makes it extremely difficult to carry out the mandate of preserving the rural nature of the area in which rurally based Conservative Councillors are elected.

Not only does the nature of the NPPF suggest worrying implications for our idyllic landscape, but it also makes our Council look ‘spineless and inept’ as we were referred to in my first parish meeting two days after I was elected. We can no longer take the rural vote for granted. In my by-election back in May 2013, nearly all of the spoiled ballots I was shown had some reference to the lack of a UKIP candidate standing. Another more recent by-election in my area saw an extremely narrow victory for a Conservative where a UKIP member had stood against him. In most areas of my district, we nearly always see a huge victory against the sum total of Labour, Lib Dem and the Green’s vote combined.

I would not dispute that the vast majority of Britain’s countryside (over 90%) remains untouched, but it is where the development is taking place that is harming the Tory vote. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), over one thousand hectares of green belt land (an area of open land around a settlement on which building is restricted) have been lost each year since 1997, covered in over 45,000 houses, spanning an area that roughly equates to a city the size of Bath. This is happening right on the doorstep of a great number of people who very often elect local Conservative Councillors for the purpose of preventing it. Is it any wonder that 13% of the almost exclusively Conservative Countryside Alliance now intends to vote UKIP in 2015?

The most frustrating aspect of the housing vs. environment issue is that plenty could be done to accommodate Britain’s growing population that would offend very few. Another CPRE report has identified derelict brownfield sites available for building approximately 1.5 million new homes. This would be on top of the 300,000 empty houses in the UK unoccupied for months, as well as the vast amount of land that our nation’s major house builders have permission to build on that could accommodate another 280,000 homes. Somewhat surprisingly, this report came after the last Labour government smashed targets to increase brownfield development by 60% before 2008, eight years ahead of schedule. Furthermore, back in 2011, local authorities identified an estimated 63,750ha of Brownfield land in England, up 2.6% from 62,130ha in previous year. Half of this land was derelict or vacant, with the other half in use, but with potential for redevelopment.

Clearly then there is a case for more ambitious targets in regions across the UK which could be encouraged through corporation tax relief for housing developers. The Conservative Party could even re-consider the Lib-Dems controversial Land Tax which would deter Greenfield development. Many commentators have pointed out that one of the main barriers to brownfield development is the uncertainties around cost, particularly during negotiations surrounding the clean-up operations of the areas on which they are to build, so the government U-turn to abolish Land Remediation Relief is welcome.

Eric Pickles’ recent announcement to grant more power to local councils could not have come soon enough. By making it more difficult to build on green belts, developers will naturally gravitate towards brownfield growth and focus on smaller urban properties that are more realistically priced for the people who need housing most.

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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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National Countryside Week shows Prince Charles at his best

Nik Darlington 6.05am

Prince Charles is a man who has spent much of his life being berated for trivial things (like having his toothpaste squeezed on to the toothbrush, or whispering not-so-sweet-nothings down tapped phone lines) whilst being heroically correct about some of very important things when chatterers decried him a fool: such as climate change, conservation, heritage and farming. Moreover, the heir to the throne has done more for young entrepreneurs in this country through his Prince’s Trust than Lord Sugar could do in a million lamentable episodes of the Apprentice. And he is the driving force behind the inaugural National Countryside Week.

One year ago, the Prince of Wales set up the Prince’s Countryside Fund with the overall aim of aiding the survival of “the smaller family farmer”. The fund’s objectives include encouraging sustainable farming, attracting young people into the profession, and improving people’s relationship with and knowledge of the great British outdoors.

The fund’s recent survey made for sober reading as it showed the public consistently misunderstand the size and value of our countryside. Four-fifths of people overestimate farmers’ salaries, three-quarters underestimated or didn’t know the extent of agricultural employment (1.8 per cent of the UK workforce) and nearly nine in ten people underestimate the value of rural tourism (£14 billion). On the flipside, more than 90 per cent of people value the countryside and agree that it is important to protect it. There is a basic, innate appreciation on which to build.

Over the past twelve months, the Prince’s Countryside Fund has given half a million pounds to projects such as the Yorkshire Moors Agricultural Apprenticeships Scheme (YMAAS), which has five apprentices working full-time on farms and receiving college training, and the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, which is delivering grants to more than fifty school farms and getting nearly two hundred children involved in farming and gardening - also showing that ‘rural’ shouldn’t necessarily mean apply to the countryside alone.

Of course, despite the prince’s best efforts, he can only be a figurehead. Whatever recent ‘revelations’ about his meetings with ministers, it is politicians not princes who instigate and implement policy. Dylan Sharpe, head of media at the Countryside Alliance, says that the current government has ‘so far struggled to turn around the anti-rural policies of previous administrations’. Sharpe also downplays the recently published Natural Environment White Paper (which I gave a thumbs up to last month), whilst pointing out the forestry fiasco and the ‘ludicrous decision to drive a bulldozer through some of Britain’s most beautiful rural vistas at a cost of £17 billion - just to shave thirty minutes off the train between London and Birmingham’.

The criticisms of the attempted forestry sale and the HS2 project are valid - one was killed off quickly and the latter ought to die a similar death. However, there is plenty in the Government’s credit side, such as the Green Investment Bank, the newly designated ecological protection areas, the pledge to protect amenities such as rural post offices and, as Dylan Sharpe points out, reform of the rural policy framework in replacing the ineffectual Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) with a new Rural Communities Policy Unit.

Moreover, whatever one thinks about wider Conservative party policies, and putting cynicism to one side, a Conservative-led government ought to be a good thing for the countryside. Rural areas of Britain are almost exclusively represented in Parliament by Conservative MPs. Throw the Liberal Democrat MPs into the mix, with their large rural seats in Scotland, and for the first time in many, many years the entire British countryside has siginificant rural representation on the Government benches. Of course, there are potential problems with the currently predominant breed of Conservatism if the obsession with cutting back on red tape means a damaging dismantling of environmental protection regulations in the autumn.

I have written before about the difficulties vote seeking politicians face when reconciling environmental policy with the democratic electoral cycle. If David Cameron is going to go down in history as having led the ‘greenest government ever’ then he and his ministers need to buck the trend of putting short-term votes ahead of long-term environmental benefit. The coalition appears keen to put economic recovery ahead of electoral interests and it must do the same for environmental sustainability.

Prince Charles, however, is not at the whim of any electoral cycle, only the natural coming and going of time. He has consistently put the environment first, and performed wonders for disadvantaged young people all over the kingdom.

If you would like to make a donation to the Prince’s Countryside Fund, you can text it, donate online or over the counter at your local Post Office - follow this link for more details.

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