The opposition to the Government’s planning reforms shows how planners have failed in the past.
The Council for the Protection of Rural England, the National Trust and English Heritage – along with many others – have raised loud objections to the Government’s proposed planning reforms. They claim it will lead to the “concreting over of the countryside” and even went as far as showing an aerial photograph of Los Angeles to unjustifiably raise the fears of the public about this.
Their fears are justified, but not because of the strength of the house-builders and commercial developers, because of the weakness of planners in local government.
The key phrase in the new guidance is the presumption in favour of granting planning consent for, “sustainable development”. I have emphasised the word sustainable for a reason. Unlike the reforms of the 1980s which presumed in favour of just plain old “development”, the inclusion of the word “sustainable” is crucial to addressing the countryside lobby’s concerns.
Yet, what is “sustainable development”? The phrase has been around since the late 80s as a way to describe development which does not adversely affect its environment. Many people believe it refers to green energy projects, so they won’t be able to object to wind turbines or electricity pylons marching across the countryside or damage to protected areas by large solar farms – though these are unlikely to be viable since the Government scrapped Labour’s wholly unsustainable Feed-in-Tariff regime. Others think that a few bits of Greenwash, (solar panels and small wind turbines) on new homes will mean the planners cannot object. Their failure to do so in the past gives them good reason to fear the consequences.
However, these changes mean that planners in Local Authorities have a real opportunity to get ahead of the developers and lead the process of deciding what “sustainable” means for their local areas. They need to be leading the process of consulting with residents and defining in their Local Development Frameworks where development should – and should not – happen – and what is expected from developers in return in terms of affordable housing and contributions to local services. The old model failed because there was not enough planning, not too much, it was just all defensive and after the fact.
And it cost us money, because when a developer finally got their planning consent after spending thousands on applications and appeals, like as not they had overpaid for the land. So, in order to fund their “affordable” housing obligations, they ran off to the Government and asked them for taxpayer grants, instead of this being factored in to what they paid for the land!
Local council leaders and planners need to get together with local communities, discuss what is lacking in their areas. We have all been involved in campaigns to save Post Offices and village shops and many schools close in rural villages because not enough families live locally. Wouldn’t sensible development with the right blend of homes for locals, maybe via a Community Land Trust to preserve their affordability in to the future, help to support the economic life of a village? And we all live in villages, even those of us in cities where the same fights go on over just those local services; there just aren’t a few miles of fields between our villages.
Even larger developments like that proposed North of Harlow, where up to 6,000 new homes are planned, could be accepted where the planners and local politicians get together with local residents to work out what is needed to make that development sustainable. In these, larger scale projects, it is about schools and roads and parks, but in Harlow’s case, it is also about rebuilding the original infrastructure of the 1960s New Town so it continues to be a quality place for the existing residents as well as the new ones.
So yes, Greg Clark and Bob Neill need to be standing up to the doom-mongers, but they also need to be encouraging the planners to do what they are paid to do – to plan.