August 2, 2011 - Bill Esterson's Westminster Diary

 

Bill Esterson

 

The government’s new planning policy was slipped out while parliament was not sitting. That means no chance for MPs to scrutinise what the government is proposing to do. The new planning policy loosens planning rules so that, unless an area is designated a national park or area of outstanding natural beauty, there will be no defence against any developer who wants to develop anything anywhere.

This is a huge worry to everyone in Sefton. The council is consulting on its core housing strategy and is asking for your views about building on green belt land outside the existing towns and villages. So whether you live in Maghull, Aintree, Melling, Formby, Hightown, Ince Blundell or Crosby, the government’s new policy will affect you as there is every chance that developers are preparing to build new housing estates on your doorstep thanks to the new rules.

Britain has a good reputation for protecting precious countryside and the ancient built environment. Thanks to reasonably strict planning rules we have, since the Second World War, been able to protect our heritage against the worst excesses of urban sprawl and sporadic development in the countryside.

Not any more. The government, under pressure from big business, wants developers to rule unchecked. Local authorities and communities will be powerless to prevent large-scale development on greenfield sites.

The localism bill now before parliament is a straight developers' charter. Drafted by the Conservative local government secretary, Eric Pickles, and the Liberal Democrat business secretary, Vince Cable, it stresses business and "national economic policy" over conservation at every turn. It is the outcome of intense lobbying by the construction industry. Pickles and Cable are mere purveyors of building plots to developers and big business. The words development and business occur in the bill 340 times, the word countryside just four.

As things stand, the presumption in favour of sustainable development will reward developers and neglect sustainability.

The government’s plans have not only been attacked by the Campaign to Protect Rural England <http://www.cpre.org.uk/magazine/opinion/item/2369-planning-system-under-attack> and the National Trust <http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-chl/w-countryside_environment/w-planning-landing.htm> but also questioned by the Royal Town Planning Institute<http://www.rtpi.org.uk/item/4731/23/5/3>. The latter fears that "economic growth is generally set to trump the aspirations of local people expressed in local and neighbourhood plans". Mr Pickles talks of community empowerment and sustainable development but that may turn out to mean very little when set against the plans of a wealthy developer.

The crucial change in the new proposals is what ministers call "a presumption in favour of sustainable development". In short, that means proposals which comply with as yet ill-defined local plans (half of local authorities do not have one) will get an almost automatic go-ahead. There will be restrictions and the local plans, which must comply with national guidelines, will not allow a free-for-all. But as it stands the proposed planning framework is far too feeble when it comes to specifying how local plans will be drawn up and enforced. It also supports a category of neighbourhood plan which could allow development on the say-so of a group of self-appointed local people of questionable provenance. This could include friends and relatives of land owners who want to build on some of the farmland in Sefton which is owned by developers. This sounds like a builders' charter.

"Neighbourhoods will have the power to promote more development than is set out in the strategic policies of the local plan," say the proposals. Or in other words, if you own land and have 20 friends who support you, then I cannot stop you building.

The government says that planning "must not act as an impediment to growth". This stands on its head the purpose of planning, which is to guard the public interest irrespective of market forces. Its whole point is to be an impediment.

There is no argument that planning is too slow. That does not justify throwing out baby, bath water and all. There is no evidence that a shortage of green land is impeding growth. House-builders and hypermarkets already hold large land banks. There is no "need" to build on green-field sites anywhere in Sefton or elsewhere in Britain. There is merely a "demand" from those wishing to profit from it because it is cheaper and easier to build on green land than to have to clean up former industrial land before building.

There is now probably more developable land left over from manufacture and lying unused in England than ever in history. It is mostly serviced, with infrastructure, housing, schools and a working population to hand. By definition it is more sustainable than virgin countryside. It is there that planning should direct development.

Some will say that the Royal Town Planning Institute, National Trust and Council for the Protection of Rural England are being alarmist and that the government will protect the green belt. The government says in its impact statement that local electors may "resist development proposals that are not in line with their aspirations", in other words they may opt for conservation. So far so good and after all that’s what people in Sefton are doing right now in attending public meetings and in writing to the Council. Yet when developers appeal, inspectors are told that their duty is to concede on grounds of overriding national policy. That can only mean one thing. The developers will win every time there is an appeal and that will mean building on the green belt, on farmland and on parks and gardens.

When Mr Pickles told me in the House of Commons in May that he would protect the green belt, he may well have meant what he said. The sad truth is that his and Mr Cable’s proposals do the exact opposite. The government minister who described the planning guidance as “concrete proposals” hit the nail right on the head – concrete right across our countryside.

If you object to the government’s new policy, write to Eric Pickles, the Secreatary of State for Communities and Local Government at the House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA and write to me at 29 Liverpool Road North, Maghull, L31 2HB to support the campaign against the government’s planning policy guidance.