On Wednesday in Westminster a procession of angry Coalition backbenchers protested angrily about the harm the Government’s planning reforms are doing to their constituencies. Ministers should not be surprised by this anger.
Across the country developers are being allowed to cherry pick the greenfield sites they want.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has found that at least thirty large housing estates have been granted by Government inspectors in open countryside and against local wishes since March 2012.
Many more local authorities are preparing plans that open up further areas of countryside to developers, including land for over 150,000 houses in the Green Belt.
Two years ago David Cameron told John Craven on Countryfile: “I care deeply about our countryside and our environment.
But many people, including some of his most loyal supporters – including, indeed, some MPs who accused CPRE and the Daily Telegraph of scaremongering about the Government’s planning reforms – are telling him that the countryside is being harmed as a result of his policies.
It is time he listened and intervened. If he does not, Nadhim Zahawi MP’s fear that harm to the countryside “will become the defining legacy of this Government” will come true.
The Government’s fear is that changing course will lead to a fall in house building, making it even harder for young people to find a decent home. This is a legitimate concern. The country desperately needs more homes, including affordable homes in rural areas.
The challenge is to get good quality, well-designed houses where they are needed, with as little loss of countryside or damage to existing places as possible.What we are seeing now is the worst of both worlds: too few houses built; too much damage done.
Solving the country’s housing crisis will require measures that go way beyond the planning system. But a few relatively simple changes to planning policy can ensure better quality homes in the right places, without resulting in fewer homes being built.
First, and most critically, the Government needs to state clearly that brownfield sites should be developed for housing before greenfield.
This will encourage house builders and local authorities to work together to bring these sites forward, rather than take the soft option of greenfield sites on the edge of towns or around attractive villages.
Second, if a local authority does not have an up to date plan there should not be a presumption in favour of any development a house builder proposes.
That is what we are seeing at the moment. “The purpose of the planning system,’ according to the NPPF, ‘is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.”
The Government and the Planning Inspectorate must insist that new developments really are sustainable. Third, housing targets should be realistic, not aspirational.
There is very little clarity on how housing need should be calculated, but one thing is clear: the numbers set in local plans will not be achieved because the major house builders have no interest in building on that scale.
What is happening instead is that swathes of land are being allocated on the basis of fantastic targets and developers are, unsurprisingly, taking the most profitable, greenest sites.
We are growing houses where we should be growing food, and leaving derelict places that badly need development.
This is good news if you have shares in the major house builders, bad news for everyone else.
David Cameron does not need to scrap the NPPF.
But he does need to listen to the good advice he is receiving from his friends.