MPs face a public backlash over proposals to tear up the UK’s planning laws and allow much greater development as conservation groups mobilise millions of members to lobby against the strategy.
Amid signs that the campaign against the planning shakeup is rapidly becoming the biggest environmental controversy since the coalition took office, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, one of the main conservation charities, has reported that 7,500 members have written to their MPs.
The National Trust, which has four million members, already has a quarter of a million signatures on a petition that asks each person to provide their postcode so their local MP can be identified.
The RSPB, the UK’s second largest environmental charity, says that in last general election, in 56 constituencies the majority of the victorious MP was lower than the number of the charity’s local members. Thirty of these are Conservative and seven are Liberal Democrats.
The RSPB said research showed that 96% of its members claimed to vote in general elections, and that, by paying an average of £55 to it each year, they “have to have a real interest in nature”. Martin Harper, the charity’s conservation director, said: “Like everyone else they’ll have lots of things which motivate them to vote, but if, for example, the environment becomes a political issue, those that care about the environment, like RSPB members, are likely to vote accordingly.”
Wildlife and environmental groups were outraged by the draft nationalplanning policy framework published by the government in the summer and billed as a once-in-a-generation attempt to streamline the planning system.
Campaigners welcomed the attempt to simplify the notoriously complicated regulations, but were furious at the core statement that there should be “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”, with some projects approved “without delay”.
Critics claim that the goal of sustainable development is poorly defined and biased towards economic development, often at the expense of the protection of people and the environment.
The row was reignited when George Osborne used his autumn statement to announce a review of the European Habitats Directive, which protects important habitats. The chancellor also appeared to downgrade environmental priorities where they conflict with the goal of economic growth.
The National Trust’s director general, Dame Fiona Reynolds, and its chairman, the journalist Simon Jenkins, have had meetings with planning minister Greg Clark and the prime minister, David Cameron. At least one charity is actively recruiting supporters in Clark’s Tunbridge Wells constituency and in Witney, Oxfordshire, where Cameron is the local MP.
One Conservative backbencher said constituency pressure had been used to good effect when the government proposed selling Forestry Commission land, a policy that was aborted. At a meeting with the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, many MPs complained that they had received hundreds of letters from constituents.
Among the backbenchers lobbying for the draft plan to be heavily revised is Conservative MP and ecological campaigner Zac Goldsmith, who wants a second government consultation.
“Planning reforms matter a lot to Conservative backbenchers,” Goldsmith told the Observer. “They will want to know the new rules genuinely empower local people, provide the protections their constituents want for their areas, and do not represent in any way a blank cheque for developers.”
Naomi Luhde-Thompson, planning and policy adviser for Friends of the Earth, said: “Planning is one of those things where everybody has an opinion because it’s always about something happening near them.”
Among the key demands of environmental groups are:
■ That the government provide a single, detailed definition of sustainable development to guide planners.
■ That local authorities are given two years to introduce the new system to allow plans to be reviewed and revised.
■ That more detail be given on issues such as energy efficiency, recycling and low-carbon energy targets.
A report on the issue by the communities and local government select committee is due on 21 December. The government is due to publish the public response to the new planning rules and the review of the habitats directive by the end of March.
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “The draft framework retains the protections already in place and puts power back into the hands of local people, ensuring they are in charge of deciding the areas they wish to see developed and those to be protected.”