By Tim Montgomerie
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In an interview with The Times (£) Greg Clark MP attempts to take the heat out of the controversy surrounding the Government's attempt to introduce a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Dr Clark is proposing to sit down with critics of his plans and consider all reasonable amendments that will protect the environment but will still address the need for more housebuilding and other jobs-creating developments.
Speaking to Radio 4's Today programme he said that countryside groups like the National Trust had been very "abstract" in their criticisms so far and he noted that their campaign had featured a photograph of urban sprawl in Los Angeles as if that would happen in the UK. He said that it was time for the Trust to become "forensic" and say specifically how they think the Bill might be improved.
In yesterday's Telegraph Clark explained that the "presumption" is a mechanism that will ensure all "proposals that don’t present problems should be approved promptly." Controversial proposals will still need local consent but uncontroversial developments shouldn't get bogged down in red tape.
An alliance of countryside groups, notably the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, have publicly attacked the reforms and they were joined this week by The Daily Telegraph. Much of the reporting has been deeply irresponsible. On Thursday, for example, the headline report by BBC2's Newsnight was illustrated by images of a beautiful section of countryside that would remain specifically exempt from any development pressures. No national parks, green belt lands or areas of scientific interest will be threatened by the new planning presumption. There are echoes of the forestry privatisation drama in all of this. Opponents of that change used images of heritage woodland to make their case when ministers had made clear that these would be unaffected.
The Home Builders Federation has been disgusted by the tactics of the National Trust. “The new system will give local authorities the power to control exactly what is built in their areas," it told The Times, "it will most certainly not result in ‘concreting over the countryside’ as scaremongering anti-growth groups such as the NT are suggesting.” The "scaremongering" is nonetheless working and even among Tory members. ConservativeHome polling of grassroots members, conducted last week, found a narrow majority against the planning reforms.
In his column in today's Telegraph Charles Moore warns of a "peasants' revolt" if we don't find a way of building more homes for first-time buyers. Already faced with years of paying off the government's debts and financing tomorrow's pensions bills, we should be worried that less taxed nations could start to look very inviting to our brightest and best trained young people. The need to deliver justice across the generations and avoid a new brain drain requires that we, as a society, make Britain a place where young people can flourish. That should include finding new ways of accommodating developments outside of our overcrowded urban areas. The planning bill achieves this while still incorporating the consent of local communities. It deserves Conservatives' support.
> Harry Phibbs on the Local government blog has also addressed this subject this morning, pointing out (a) that the National Trust has pursued "lucrative" developments on its own lands, (b) and that, when explained, the Coalition's policy commands significant public support.
> See yesterday's Comment piece by CF Chairman Ben Howlett: This government's planning policies will help young people get a step up on the property ladder.