Conservative MPs revolt over new threat to green belt
Proposals by the Coalition to ease planning restrictions on green belt land in an urgent attempt to boost growth has sparked a revolt by Conservative MPs.
Backbenchers hit out after it emerged that ministers had been ordered to “think the unthinkable” in efforts to stimulate the economy back to life and pull Britain out of its double-dip recession.
Following a meeting earlier this month of the “Quad” – David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat Treasury chief secretary – the planning laws are back on the reform agenda just months after being redrawn in a controversial set of changes.
Senior sources have confirmed that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor want to examine every idea that could make it easier for hundreds of thousands of new homes to be built, as well as new retail developments and airport expansion projects.
This could include building on green belt land in future years – something which was specifically ruled out in the Conservatives’ 2010 general election manifesto and which would spark major protests by environmental groups.
In their new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), published in March and carefully drawn up in the wake of wide-scale opposition to draft proposals, planners were specifically ordered to protect green belt land.
There are 14 green belts in England, which “ring” urban areas and provide space for agriculture, forestry and leisure.
Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, opposes any move to unpick his new planning framework and ease restrictions on building on the green belt, The Sunday Telegraph understands.
Tory MPs have hit out against the proposals. Chris Skidmore, who has campaigned to protect the green belt in his Kingswood constituency, said: “Protecting the green belt is not simply a case of saying ‘not in my back yard’.
“We have a duty of trust to protect green belt land for future generations. It is right that the NPPF contained specific protections.”
Nick de Bois, the MP for Enfield North, described himself as a “growth zealot”, but added: “While we have many barriers to infrastructure projects, and we should be easing those, any plans that allow major housing estates on the shrinking green belt would be flawed as they would fly in the face of the government’s Localism Bill, which hands powers to local people to define their own neighbourhood plans. I don’t see how the government can square the circle on this one.”
Tracey Crouch, the MP for Chatham and Aylesford, said: “It is essential that we protect the green belt. It would be quite wrong for the Coalition to take away the green belt from the next generation, which is already burdened with the debt left to it by the last Labour government.”
The “Quad” meeting – over dinner nine days ago – was said to have been dominated by the desperate need to come up with ideas to stimulate growth and to fill a planned Economic Regeneration Bill to be published in the autumn, which will fill the “hole” in the government’s legislative plans caused by the decision to abandon reform of the House of Lords.
A Conservative source said: “You would have expected the Liberal Democrats to be up in arms at any move to permit more building on the green belt, but they seem to be quite relaxed about it.”
Mr Osborne, in particular, is said to be attracted by plans to build hundreds of thousands of new homes – which, it is argued, would ease the housing crisis as well as help the construction industry.
Tory ministers are also pushing airport expansion in the South East, although it is not thought likely there will be any firm decision on going ahead with a third runway at Heathrow until after the next general election, which is scheduled for May 2015.
Last week the Liberal Democrats effectively ruled out any expansion in airport capacity at all in the region.
In a policy paper ahead of the party’s annual conference in Brighton next month, the party set its face against new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted as well as proposals for a new “Boris Island” airport – the pet project of Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, on the Thames Estuary