The “physical harm” being inflicted on the countryside as a result of the Coalition’s planning reforms could become “the defining legacy of this Government”, a senior adviser to the Prime Minister has warned.
Nadhim Zahawi, an MP and member of the No 10 policy board, said that planning regulations are causing “pain” to communities across the country.
Loopholes in the guidelines are allowing developers to “undermine the Government’s good intentions to deliver bottom-up planning and much needed housing”, he said.
He called on Nick Boles, the planning minister, to make significant changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to stop “intense attacks” on the countryside by “rapacious developers”.
“The damage this is doing to our flagship policy of localism is immense, and, if it continues, the physical harm it is doing to our countryside will become the defining legacy of this Government,” Mr Zahawi said.
Changes to planning rules, brought in last year, introduced a “presumption of sustainable development” to force through more house building.
Councils which fail to adopt local plans setting out where building can take place are at risk from developers.
Mr Zahawi warned that the regulations are resulting in builders “identifying farmland, large gardens … and greenfield sites in order to shortcut the planning process”. He called for a series of changes to the regulations to stop “bizarre levels of proposed development”.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) welcomed his comments and warned that planning rules are “causing massive, irreversible damage to the countryside”.
Mr Zahawi, the MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, said: “No one in my constituency believes that we can preserve ourselves in aspic forever. However, change needs to be supported by the community, and in the current situation that simply isn’t happening.” He added that he does “not doubt” that there is a need for more housing but said that more must be done to protect communities from “the attacks that they are currently under”.
Mr Zahawi had intended to make the comments during a parliamentary debate on planning on Wednesday. He was not called to speak but later released what he had hoped to say. The MP was able to make only a brief intervention as Mr Boles addressed MPs in Westminster Hall. He urged the minister to “amend the NPPF because all is not lost”.
Mr Boles rejected his call and said: “We are not looking to change the NPPF, because after such a dramatic change in the planning system, stability has an enormous value.”
During the debate David Heath, a former minister, said that communities trying to resist building in the countryside are “under siege” and are being “picked apart by clever QCs” able to have local decisions overridden.
The former farming minister said that barristers “representing house builders” are responsible for an “avalanche” of building applications and urban sprawl in rural areas.
“We have a free-for-all at the moment, an avalanche of applications that are opportunistic in nature, because the local plans have not been agreed,” Mr Heath said. “We should be able to ensure that the buildings in a particular area suit how buildings in that area have been built historically and fit with the urban or rural community landscape.”
Mr Boles insisted that if new housing is “beautiful” it will make “people feel that development is a friend”.
Shaun Spiers, the chief executive of the CPRE, said: “Nadhim Zahawi is entirely right and it is very encouraging that he has chosen to speak out.
“His concerns are shared by MPs and councillors across the country. The way the NPPF is being interpreted is causing massive, irreversible damage to the countryside and many towns, and the tragedy is that this damage is quite unnecessary.”
He added: “The only person who can set this right is David Cameron. Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the No 10 policy board. He has spoken very powerfully about what is really happening in the country, and I very much hope that the Prime Minister will hear him.”