Property developers have mounted a “huge” lobbying campaign backed by the rich and powerful to alter radically planning laws in favour of development, the head of the National Trust has said.
Sir Simon Jenkins, the organisation’s chairman, said the “fingerprints” of rich builders were all over the reforms, which campaigners say will give developers carte blanche to build on large parts of rural England.
“We are up against some very rich and powerful people,” he told MPs on a Commons committee investigating the planning reforms. His comments come amid growing concerns about the influence of lobbyists and business figures on ministers and government policy.
Plans to force lobbyists to sign up to a register in an attempt to increase transparency were delayed by a year yesterday, despite previous pledges from the Government.
David Cameron described lobbying in a speech last year as “the next big scandal waiting to happen” following the furore over MPs’ expenses.
The Daily Telegraph disclosed last month that an elite forum of property developers charged “key players in the industry” £2,500 a year to set up breakfasts, dinners and drinks with senior Conservatives. The club raises about £150,000 a year for the party.
Official records show that ministers in charge of the new planning regulations have met 28 times with figures from the property industry since coming to power and have only seen environmental groups 11 times.
The National Trust and other groups are campaigning to persuade the Government to rethink the changes to planning rules because of fears that they favour development.
The Daily Telegraph is also running a Hands Off Our Land campaign urging ministers to rethink the reforms. The draft National Planning Policy Framework includes a new “presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
Sir Simon was pressed by the committee about revelations in this newspaper that developers who stood to benefit from the changes had donated millions of pounds to the Conservatives and whether this had any bearing on the planning reforms.
He replied: “This process has seen the most intensive lobbying I’ve seen in a long time in this game. The sums of money involved are huge.
“One only has to go through this document with a mildly sceptical eye and you will see one fingerprint after another. We are up against some very rich and powerful people.”
He suggested that it was not a coincidence that a requirement forcing councils to allow new homes only to be built on previously developed brownfield sites was dropped from the draft planning documents.
This decision was “incomprehensible” because there was so much brownfield land from England’s industrial past which could be used for building.
He said: “De-industrialisation has yielded so much unused land — fly over it, take a train. You have got sewerage, utilities in towns. This discussion is a distraction because the fact is there are quite a few companies who want to build on the countryside and make money.”
Sir Simon suggested that the requirement to build on previously developed land was dropped because “there are smaller interests involved in brownfield development”.
He added that the draft planning reforms used language that was “so vague that it is easily actionable” in courts, further tying the planning system in knots.
However, John Slaughter, director of external affairs at the Home Builders Federation who was giving evidence alongside Sir Simon, said: “The merit of having less rather than more on paper is you avoid an overly tick-box, prescriptive approach to the planning system.” He said this had contributed to the current, unwieldy situation.
A 10-week consultation into the draft planning reforms closed last night, and MPs are due to be given their first opportunity to debate the proposed regulations on Thursday.
Yesterday petitions urging a rethink had been signed by more than 400,000 people, including one by 210,000 National Trust supporters, and were handed to the Government. The Daily Telegraph also disclosed last month that Greg Clark, the planning minister, had privately urged property developers to lobby the Prime Minister amid concerns that the changes could be blocked.
Last night a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “The suggestion that the draft framework was biased towards developers is factually wrong.
“Councils’ plans should allocate land with the least environmental or amenity value, thereby encouraging the use of disused land for regeneration. This means brownfield sites will be prioritised, but also recognises that some restored brownfield sites also have ecological value.
“We will now carefully consider all the suggestions made during the consultation period.” Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, said in a speech in November 2010 that a Bill on political and constitutional law, including a statutory register of lobbyists, would be introduced “next year”.
But it emerged yesterday that legislation to create a register of Westminster lobbyists is not likely to be tabled in Parliament before the middle of 2012.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It has always been our policy to move to a statutory register. It was in the Coalition agreement.”
A consultation is due to be published in the next few weeks.