Middle England is in revolt and the issue that is attracting their fury is planning. Or more precisely, the Government’s proposed new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and its presumption in favour of sustainable development.
The Editor of Country Life, Clive Aslet, claims that “the object (of the NPPF) is to let development rip through those parts of Britain that aren’t formally protected as National Parks or part of the Green Belt. This is most of what us still regard as our green and pleasant land – ‘all fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes’, as George Eliot put it.”
Shaun Spiers from CPRE adds, that “the presumption in favour of development is clearly about development, not sustainability. The message for local authorities is ‘build, build, build.’”
Government Ministers appear to be at war with the countryside’s leading advocates. The complaints from groups such as the National Trust and CPRE, hitherto seen as part of the true blue brigade, are dismissed by Ministers as “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups."
The Countryside Alliance’s Dylan Sharpe, says “It's time to call an armistice and for all parties to get back round the table.”
It’s funny, they weren’t calling for that when the Government ripped up the regional strategies and introduced localism. Some 220,000 homes that were planned under the previous Government, have now been scrapped as a consequence of the abolition of the regional plans.
The reality is that no local authority that puts in place a local plan has anything to fear by the NPPF and the presumption in favour of sustainable development. What the Government are trying to do is prevent a repeat of the 2004 Planning Act. Between 2004 and 2010, despite requirements to do so, just 13% of councils put in place a local plan. If you believe in localism and a plan led system, it requires a local authority to have a plan. You can’t allow them to drag their heels in the hope that difficult decisions will go away.
Aslet is wrong when he says that “a carefully evolved system of checks and balances has been junked in favour of a presumption that big development will get its way.” The NPPF is an attempt to ensure that a system of checks and balances remains in place under localism, and that councils face up to their new responsibilities.
In opposition, the Conservatives always said they wanted more development and to build more homes. They argued that the problem with the top-down regional strategies was that it built the wrong homes in the wrong places, where they were not wanted. Their solution was localism.
There are legitimate debates to be had about whether we concrete over greenfields or whether we cram more people into our built up areas; whether we create sustainable new settlements or whether we disperse development over wider areas. Under localism, it will be for local communities and their community leaders to grapple with these issues and policy dilemmas.
This could result in a loss of greenfields in certain areas, but that is only because those communities have decided that is a more desirable outcome than cramming people into high rise, small boxes in our town centres.
The rural countryside lobby is quite happy to take the bits of localism that empowers people to say no, but they don’t want councils to face up to the responsibility that goes along with having these new localist powers. The NPPF does just that.
Ministers, stick to your guns.