Clive Aslet writing in the Telegraph :
Thame, in Oxfordshire, makes an unlikely battleground. …This is the heart of Toryland – and the people of Thame will have felt especially glad when the Coalition came to power. Not only did it bring their preferred Prime Minister to Downing Street, but it seemed to spell the end of John Prescott’s regional strategies, with their dirigiste targets for housing growth. These had earmarked Thame, with its population of 11,000, for nearly 800 new houses. According to Angela Willson, chairman of one of the residents’ associations, the town simply could not absorb an addition on this scale.
When the present Government threw out the South-East Plan, Thame breathed a sigh of relief. But it is now amazed to find itself preparing for another fight – with ministers who are meant to be champions of localism. Recently, the Coalition announced a radical overhaul of the planning system, which aims to throw out the old rulebook, the size of a telephone directory, and replace it with a pamphlet of 52 pages. George Osborne summed up its intent during the Budget: “The default answer to development will be ‘yes’.” Anyone wanting to halt the bulldozers will, in the words of the planning minister Greg Clark, be guilty of “selfish nihilism”.
The object is to let development rip through those parts of Britain that aren’t formally protected as National Parks or part of the Green Belt. This is most of what us still regard as our green and pleasant land – “all fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes”, as George Eliot put it. Labour pursued, with varying degrees of success, the commendable policy of directing development to brownfield sites: post-industrial wastelands that do nothing to enhance the urban environment. That has been thrown out of the window. Nor is any protection being given to agricultural land, which is now fair game for development, even though climate change and increased demand for food make it ever more likely that we will need it in future.
As a consequence, it isn’t only Thame that’s up in arms. Lydd, among the dunes of Romney Marsh, doesn’t want to swallow more housing when its young people are leaving. The Slad Valley – Cider with Rosie country – is similarly dismayed.
One might think it axiomatic that the Conservatives would be in favour of – well, of conservation. But their behaviour is horribly reminiscent of the 1980s, when Nicholas Ridley, a gent and watercolourist in his spare time but a card-carrying laissez-faire zealot in public life, introduced the term “Nimby” into public discourse.
Reforming the planning system isn’t such a bad idea. But there’s a reason that bodies such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England are furious about the new National Planning Policy Framework. A carefully evolved (if frequently cumbersome) system of checks and balances has been junked in favour of a presumption that big development will get its way.
The National Planning Policy Framework is supposed to be a consultation document – although you couldn’t tell from the odium that ministers have been heaping on those who object to it. But advice from the Planning Inspectorate suggests that, even in its draft state, it “is capable of being a material consideration” in planning cases. In other words, this radical change to the way our environment is managed is already being introduced, without so much as a parliamentary debate, much less a vote.
No wonder, too, that the National Trust is up in arms. For more than a century, it has showed a gentlemanly disdain for campaigning. But the Tories have gone so far out of their way to pull its tail that the beast has reared up. And instead of mollifying it, the local government minister Bob Neill has felt the need to blame criticisms of the National Planning Policy Framework on “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers within the national headquarters of pressure groups”. Reds under the state beds? Don’t make me laugh. To pick a quarrel with the National Trust – whose membership dwarfs that of any political party – the Government must have a pretty compelling argument, especially since it’s nursing a bloody nose over the sale of the forests. And it does: we need more houses, right?
Well, no. If there were a demand for new housing, builders would be putting up properties left, right and centre on their massive land banks. As it is, the rate of building has slowed to little above zero. Since the credit crunch, the public has started to cut its coat according to its cloth: over the past year, the number of households being formed has plunged, since would-be buyers can’t find the deposits that building societies are asking.
We certainly do need some new housing, of the kind that low-paid people can afford. But the volume house builders don’t do affordable. They want to construct homes that will make them money, built on greenfield sites that are attractive to their customers, while costing little to prepare (unlike the post-industrial, brownfield landscapes that could really benefit from being torn up).
Much of the pressure for reform is coming – as it did under Mr Brown – from the Treasury. For George Osborne, it seems that construction is simply an economic lever to pull: our verdant countryside can be sacrificed for a blip in the growth rate. But even if growth returns, we should think twice before letting the planners have their way. We have had growth spurts before, and they buggered Bognor and crucified Kettering. In the new economy, the most flourishing towns will be those where it’s most agreeable to live: that’s why Winchester and Cambridge are thriving, while Hartlepool and Cumbernauld New Town aren’t.
Instead of concreting over the countryside, development should be redirected to brownfield sites. …We have all too many urban wastelands that would benefit from being redesigned. We also have a rich and cherished landscape of fields, streams, hedges, oak trees, orchards, canals, cottages, gardens and market squares. Call me a selfish nihilist if you like, but I say: hands off.
Dear oh dear, with freinds like this does the campaign against the NPPF need enemies. What a load of old saloon bar prejudices. If he looked into it he would find that the arguments over RSS and the NPPF have nothing to do with Thame, or Lydd, as here the local authority have accepted that scale of development for the towns. (Stroud is a bit more complicated). In fact a rule of thumb is that medium sized towns should expect around 15% increase in houses over 15 years, so it can be claimed, and indeed residents of Didcot and Henley, and development interests, have claimed that Thame is not getting enough! Is the best he can do to mention a new town he doesnt like, as opposed to somewhere like Letchworth he might, and in another country to boot.
When mortgages are easier and the economy recovers the temporary dip in housebuilding will lift. Its not that there isnt demand, its a lack of money to make that demand effective. Households are still forming, and forced into expensive rented premises with deposits so high the bank of mum and dad is being tapped to pay depsoits. In any event, can he name the post industrial landscapes in South Oxfordshire or South East Kent where the development could go, and if not will he force small firms to move to Hartlepool and take their employees with them? With articles like these ministers might be dusting off Nicholas Ridleys famous shotgun and putting Nimbys like Clive Aslet in their sights, to the detriment of planning that makes a real difference.