GOLDSMITH-ZAC-2Zac Goldsmith is Member of Parliament for Richmond Park. Follow Zac on Twitter.

Like many colleagues, I have been inundated by letters from constituents about the Government’s proposed reform to the Planning system, almost of all of which express major concern. People are right to be paying attention; whatever reforms are introduced will leave a legacy for years to come. 

I don’t doubt that the current system needs radical reform. It is, on so many levels, utterly perverse. It lacks democracy, it dis empowers even locally elected representatives, and it leads more often than not to the kind of development most people abhor.  Indeed it is hard to imagine a system better designed to alienate and enrage.

Time and again local people rise up against a proposed new development – the paving over of a local garden for example — only to be squashed by the authorities. Even where residents, local councillors and elected MPs are united in determined opposition, their wishes are so often simply brushed aside by a remote planning bureaucrat. 

And residents are right to point out that there is no real consistency. The larger projects seem to blast their way through the system, while individual home owners face endless battles just to have their home improved. Tesco almost invariably gets a green light, but you can forget about adding a conservatory to your home.

The system therefore needs reform. The question is what sort of reform do we need? Like almost everyone who has written to me, I want a planning system that delivers more protection of green spaces (and not just the green belt, but the places that really matter to people). I want local people to have more say over the design and nature of developments, so that we can prevent the ongoing destruction of communities by inappropriate and deeply unpopular development. I want the reforms to introduce a stronger bias against sprawl, and in favour of building on land that is less environmentally valuable.

The Planning Minister, who was well known in Opposition as a localist and as a campaigner against inappropriate development, believes his reforms will deliver all the protections that campaigners are asking for. He maintains that Local Authority ‘plans’ will be sovereign, which means that where planning goes wrong, it will be because locally elected representatives have got it wrong, to which the answer is to throw them out at a subsequent election. It is a compelling argument.

However the message from the Government as a whole has been confused and contradictory, with some departments clearly viewing the Planning system as an economic impediment. They want it to become a mechanism to promote growth above all else. In the National Planning Policy Framework draft paper itself, these elements of Government appear to have prevailed. Their position is flawed and has to be challenged. 

Of course we have a national housing crisis. Countless people are struggling to get on the property ladder. But that is largely a problem of finance. The banks have frozen their lending and simply aren’t helping people.

The problem isn’t Planning. We already have vast areas of land available today for development. There are 250,000 plots in the South East alone, in addition to 31,000 acres of brownfield land. That, and the fact that roughly 90% of applications are successful, suggests the problem is neither lack of land to develop, nor a planning system that is not sufficiently permissive. By relaxing the rules, we are unlikely to see more development overall, but we would certainly see more development in the wrong places. Developers might get richer, but for the economy, there would be no significant surge in growth.

Yesterday, 45 Coalition MPs signed a letter to the Prime Minister, warning that simplification of the system this “should not come at the expense of the ability of planning to protect and enhance the environment.” 

We urged the Prime Minister to ensure that the final NPPF, due out some time around the budget, include explicit bias in favour of developing brownfield land first, as well as a recognition of the  “intrinsic value of the ordinary, undesignated countryside.” We asked that the revised NPPF include a commitment to “genuinely sustainable development that does not prioritise short term economic interests over long term quality of life and wellbeing.”

Planning is a hugely important issue for millions of people, and the Government risks losing their long-term support if it steamrolls through destructive changes to the system. It is worth remembering that trusted organisation like the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the National Trust have many millions of active members. In the more immediate term, it risks a battle in Parliament, as this letter signed by 45 Coalition MPs demonstrates. 

The Government must ensure that the new rules cannot in any way be interpreted as a blank cheque for developers. It needs to show that where it talks about local democracy, quality of life and the environment, it means it.