Saturday, 01 November 2014

Growing pains

From: Inside edge

So a government apparently elected as the champion of the nimbys is now in the back pocket of developers?

The furore over the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) would be hilarious - especially the ministerial insinuations about a left-wing enemy within at the National Trust and Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) - if it wasn’t also so serious.

When MPs returned to parliament yesterday it was near the top of the agenda at communities and local government (CLG) questions, with Labour MP Tristram Hunt  claiming that it meant that ‘the Conservatives cannot be trusted with the British countryside’.

Earlier the same day Eric Pickles and George Osborne had penned a joint article for the Financial Times arguing that: ‘This is our opportunity to unlock the new investment and new jobs the country needs. We cannot afford to miss it.

Contrast that with the Queen’s Speech debate last June, when Conservative backbenchers queued up to congratulate the government for scrapping Labour’s housing targets and regional strategies and the Home Builders Federation was warning that the new policy was a ‘recipe for disaster’.

So what on earth is going on? What’s changed so much in 15 short months?

There’s certainly an in-built tension between the anti-development instincts of most backbench Tories and the Treasury’s push for growth through more development. 

But the tension was potentially always there in Conservative planning policy: even as ministers were scrapping targets and regional strategies and trumpeting their conversion to localism, they were also saying there would be a presumption in favour of sustainable development where there were no local plans. It was in the planning green paper the Conservatives published in opposition.

One fundamental problem is that nobody seems able to agree on what the NPPF actually says. As fast as ministers claim the greenbelt will be protected, critics say protection will be weakened. No sooner have ministers said brownfield land will be developed first than opponents say it won’t.

A second is that nobody seems able to agree on what a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ - or even just sustainable - actually means. Does it  mean yes to development with good public transport links and minimal environmental impact - or just yes to development?

A third is that the debate is considerably more complicated than the government v conservationists narrative would have us believe. It’s not simply a case of choosing between Simon Jenkins of the National Trust and planning minister Greg Clark, or George Monbiot and Pickles and Osborne. 

For a flavour of the debate and the protagonists, take a look at the excellent blog by planning consultant Andrew Lainton, who has been tracking it in exhaustive detail. 

For anyone who believes in the need for more homes in general, and more affordable homes in particular, it’s a real problem deciding fact from fiction and claim from counter-claim. 

On the pro-NPPF side of the debate, it’s obvious that a national counterweight is needed to local decision-making that will at best only provide land for homes for local people and at worst will just be nimby. It’s hard not to agree with Greg Clark when he says that ‘what is crucial is that we reform planning policy in order to unlock jobs and create homes for the next generation of young people’.

But you only have to look across the Irish Sea to see the consequences of a planning free-for-all - not just the ghost estates of homes that won’t sell but a countryside littered with tens of thousands of bungalows. The choice is not just between homes and no homes but well-planned homes and badly planned ones.

The real problem, it seems to me, is that planning has become a dirty word. You don’t have to be a countryside campaigner to wonder about the consequences of a national policy under which only ‘obviously poor’ design’ can be refused and which only seems to pay lip service to Britain’s binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions. Or wonder about a system that seems to preclude regional decision-making about what could be a solution to the problem: new towns.

And all that confusion and lack of precision means a severe danger that the people who will really come out of all this smiling are not the developers but the lawyers.

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