August 9, 2011

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I have attended meetings in Maghull, Aintree, Melling, Hightown and two in Crosby as well as the exhibition in Formby.

The message coming back from the residents at those events, in letters, emails and anxious phone calls to my office is the same. We value our green space whether countryside, whether farmland or parks, whether inside or outside our towns and villages.

The National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) have been attacked by government ministers because they are both against new planning rules that they say put the Green Belt in peril.

The government says its planning reforms will streamline complicated rules on new buildings, reducing 1,300 pages of national planning policy to just 52 pages. But in one massive change, councils will be told there should be a "presumption for development".

The reforms could allow un-checked development in the countryside and lead to parts of the Green Belt being concreted over.

For the first time in its history, the National Trust is to mobilise its 3.6 million members against the Tory-Lib Dem Government's proposals and urge every visitor to its sites to sign a petition opposing the framework.

The 60,000-member CPRE is preparing to take the attack directly to David Cameron, citing a speech he made to the group in 2008 in which he promised to "cherish" the "beauty of our landscape”.

But both organisations were heavily criticised by Bob Neill, the Local Government Minister. He accused them of being "vested interests" that were peddling "deeply misleading and simply untrue" claims.

He insisted that Green Belt land, as well as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and National Parks would continue to be fully protected.

His attack came amid mounting opposition to changes to the National Planning Policy Framework that were announced last month. MPs from all parties have raised serious concerns as a three-month public consultation period gets under way.

Despite assurances from Mr Neill and his government colleagues, the Green Belt could come under threat. A government "impact assessment" of the planned changes states that it "could lead to greater development on the Green Belt".

There you have it. The government itself admits that its changes could lead to greater development of the green belt and is telling councils that they should give developers planning permission more often than at present.

Our countryside is under threat from new powers to develop "community build schemes" and "a wider range of local transport infrastructure".

The Planning Inspectorate, which rules on appeals and is an arm of the Department for Communities and Local Government, says it will be using new guidance on presumption in favour of developers with immediate effect despite the consultation period having three months to run. That means any planning applications being made now will be given permission either by councils or by planning inspectors, including on green spaces in and around Sefton.

The Government is allowing financial considerations to become key determinants in how councils decide on planning applications.

It seems to me that the National Trust and CPRE are raising some a worrying concern indeed -  the concern that this might lead to inappropriate development and loss of greenfield land.

The threat of developers building large housing estates is here now. The question is how to stop the threat?

The real threat to our open spaces in Sefton comes from what the government is doing right now, from government ministers creating a free for all for speculators and developers and from decisions that planning inspectors will be taking if developers appeal against decisions taken by our elected councillors.

I am sure that Sefton Council will hold the line and protect green spaces across Sefton both in the urban and rural areas to the best of its ability. The worrying news is that this will not be enough if the government gets its way.

Please write to Jane Gowing, the Head of Planning at Sefton Council or email jane.gowing@sefton.gov.ukwith your comments on the Sefton Council core strategy. But more importantly, please write to Bob Neill MP and Eric Pickles MP at the House of Commons. They are the two Conservative ministers responsible for the planning changes and for allowing developers to build on the green belt.

There is also a petition on the 38 degrees website, http://38degrees.org.uk   which calls on David Cameron to keep the protections in place for the countryside. A similar petition on the NHS led to the forests being saved where the government wanted to sell them to developers.

We must persuade the government to change its mind if we are to stop the developers. The Sefton Core Strategy will only be effective if it is backed up by the planning rules. That’s why it is so important to stop the government from creating a developer’s charter.