The countryside emerges this week bruised and bloodied from the most bizarre assault on it for half a century. Since the publication last year of draft changes in planning rules, no county in England has felt safe. But a last minute climb-down by the Planning Minister, Greg Clark, means that the character of our landscape is back under some sort of control.
The campaign against the Coalition’s planning reform was fierce but heart-warming for all who value England’s unique inheritance of relatively unblemished fields, woods and hills, even in heavily populated regions of the country. People cared about this inheritance. The National Trust petition had more signatures, 230,000, than the membership of the Tory party. Cities joined the campaign, their vacant acres desperately in need of brownfield regeneration. Even Eric Pickles, Local Government Minister, seemed at one point to worry about advertising hoardings in meadows, though not very much.
The battle, admirably supported by The Daily Telegraph, had nothing to do with the Government’s concern for growth, rather its desperate susceptibility to lobbyists. There was no evidence that planning restrictions on rural building land, nowadays all too modest, were impeding growth. Ninety per cent of commercial planning applications are approved, and within a new six-month deadline. Business parks are almost 20 per cent empty and existing permits for domestic and commercial sites lie unused.
The impediment to growth is government economic policy, the failure to re-stimulate demand. Adopting land-use planning as a short-term economic regulator is futile and damaging. Flogging off woods and fields as if they were so much North Sea oil is no answer to recession.
Clark’s draft was an awesome concession to developers. Over most of England, 50 years of plan-led regulation was to be replaced by what amounted to central building licences. Outside the 14 per cent of land protected for its natural beauty and the 16 per cent already built-up, development would be encouraged as long as it was vaguely “sustainable”. The word appeared to embrace any residential or business structure with a solar panel on top. The slightest argument would lead to a “default yes”.
Those who thought the National Trust, The Daily Telegraph and the Campaign to Protect Rural England were alarmist – or “semi-hysterical nihilists”, as one minister put it – should get out more. Applications were coming in from landowners for houses and factories in meadows at random. David Cameron’s assurances on national parks and green belts, which were never at issue, clearly implied that the remaining 70 per cent of rural England was vulnerable.
Since permits on appeal must “take account” of current government policy, which included the draft, fields along motorway corridors have already sprouted billboards, as enterprising farmers invite advertising. Inspectors have disregarded local planners and permitted building estates round Oakham, Fakenham, Kingswood, Malmesbury and Redditch, to name but a few reported cases, often citing the draft as guidance.
There has been a noticeable spillover into turbine licences, with arrays defacing views not just in the western uplands but across the Midlands from Lincolnshire to the Welsh Marches. Northamptonshire is planned to have the densest turbine coverage of any English county, with huge Treasury subsidies to landowners. The Duke of Gloucester has won permission for turbines looming over the National Trust’s Tudor garden at Lyveden. This precedent bodes ill for a proposed line of turbines on the Bolsover bluff near Hardwick in Derbyshire.
This week’s screeching of brakes in Whitehall stands to the credit of an older and wiser Clark, despite furious pressure from a philistine Treasury. The redirection of development towards urban renewal is welcome, though is not strong enough. The amenity value of ordinary countryside is to be a consideration in planning. The definition of sustainable is tighter, and was strengthened in Clark’s Commons statement on Tuesday. The new framework is no longer open season for cowboys.
Experts doubt whether planning decisions will be simpler or faster. References to sustainability remain a lawyer’s charter. Rural councils will still have to offer up land for steady encroachment. This absence of certainty will leave much planning in the lap of lawyers, even if the Porsches may be replaced by BMWs. But integrity is restored to the concept of a truly local plan, fed by neighbourhood opinion. Previously the Government would tolerate localism only if local meant more “land for business”.
Nobody ever questioned the need to simplify control, on which discussion was under way when last year’s bombshell landed. But the chief blight on development lies not in planning but in the chaotic world of building and health and safety regulations, now proliferating beyond reason or common sense. Anyone trying to erect a business premises faces a costly and time-consuming morass of permits, certificates, contractors and inspectors, all demanded by central government.
None of these has been rescinded by George Osborne’s Treasury or the “deregulation” minister, Francis Maude. Cynics might say that this is because their cost suits the big builders by making life hell for smaller competitors. If half the effort spent trying to help the big boys had gone into deregulating small businesses, there might be something to show for this upheaval. Inertia on deregulation is the clearest sign that this was not about growth but about helping developers expand their land banks. This is despite their sitting on unused permits for an estimated 330,000 houses.
There is a shortage of land in all European countries. But in England tens of thousands of acres of derelict and “brownfield” land lies idle, epitaph on a collapsed manufacturing economy. I believe a system of “listing” land by scenic and amenity value, as with buildings in cities, would be a far better way forward. Each county would draw up a comprehensive plan of what rural land should be safeguarded for all time, and what might one day be released for varying forms of development. It was put in place under the 1947 planning act but dismantled under the last Labour government.
Under such a scheme, “grey” areas could be designated for eventual use, which might even include land in redrawn green belts. In return there would be certainty for developers and security for communities. I am convinced this would yield more sites for building than the Coalition’s prescription of running gladiatorial fights by lawyers.
The National Trust has a public mission to protect the countryside and has done so for more than a century, usually against precisely the interests recently on parade in Whitehall. The year has shown the Tories as the ugly party, careless of beauty and craven to money. Cabinet naivety towards lobbyists was alarming. Thankfully that has been set aside and disaster averted. But this campaign will never be over.
Simon Jenkins is chairman of the National Trust