Sixteen months into its period of office, the Coalition Government has gained something of a reputation for retreating under fire. That, say its critics, is the story of the U-turns over selling forests, over tuition fees, over aspects of NHS reform and much else. But now the Government is marching into a battle it says it is determined to win: changing England’s planning laws. Is what it is proposing right? And will it get its way?
George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, made clear in his budget speech the Government’s aim. It was that, in contrast to how it believes things are now, 'the default answer to development will be ‘yes’.'
No one disputes that current planning procedures take far too long and, as a result, are too costly. The issue is not so much whether they should be speeded up but whether, in trying to make the system work more quickly, it should become easier or not for planning permissions to be granted. The Government clearly thinks it should. It believes the current system is a significant drag on economic growth and, in particular, impedes the building of much-needed new housing.
Just as MPs were going off for their holidays at the end of July, the Government published a consultation paper outlining the new ‘national planning policy framework’ it wants to introduce. This seeks to reduce over a thousand pages of complex planning law into a document of fewer than a hundred pages. It also seeks to introduce a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.
National parks, the green belt and areas of outstanding national beauty will retain their protections from development, the Government insists. But its critics say that this leaves two-thirds of rural England vulnerable to the sort of development that existing planning laws have protected it from. Critics argue that the word ‘sustainable’ in the Government’s new formulation is meaningless. The National Trust, usually rather cautious in getting involved in political disputes, says that the plans will lead to ‘unchecked and damaging development’ on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The planning minister, Greg Clark, hit back, accusing the Trust of ‘nihilistic selfishness’.
This is how things have raged over the summer. Now, with Parliament temporarily back before the party conference season, the Government is taking up the cudgels once more. This week the Chancellor and the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, wrote an article in the Financial Times in which they said: ‘No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle.’
At the centre of the Government’s intention is the wish to promote economic growth. With the British economy seemingly grinding to a standstill and the world economy slowing down too, the Chancellor is regarded as vulnerable to the charge not only that he is doing nothing to help but that he is making things worse by attempting to reduce the Government’s deficit on the scale and at the speed he is doing. He argues, however, that for the Government to relax its campaign on the deficit would be self-defeating and he shows no intention of doing so. But he still wishes to promote growth in other ways. This autumn the Government will announce a package of so-called ‘supply-side’ measures to promote growth, and the changes to the planning laws are central to this.
Much of the Government’s case focuses on housing. It points out that the number of new houses built last year was the lowest since the 1920s. The promotion of people owning their own homes is falling and the average age at which young people are buying their first homes is rising. The Government argues that it is the restrictive planning laws which are helping to perpetuate this state of affairs. Messrs Osborne and Pickles wrote: ‘We say that sticking with the old, failed planning system puts at risk young people’s future prosperity and quality of life.’
But critics say this is very misleading. The reason for the low number of new house starts has little to do with planning regulations, they say. Developers are already sitting a huge land bank on which they could easily build if they thought there was demand for the new houses. But this is not the case, they say. The reason many young people are unable to buy a home is because mortgage companies are demanding very large deposits which most young people cannot put their hands on. And the cause of the high deposit requirement is the financial crisis whose aftermath we are still living with.
What’s really going on, say the critics, is that the Government, in trying to change the planning laws, is simply caving into the construction industry lobby which wants to be given the chance to build on greenfield rather than brownfield sites because it is cheaper for them to do so and easier for them to make a profit. Sir Simon Jenkins, the political commentator and chairman of the National Trust, has written that the Government’s plan ‘is the most wretched capitulation to a single lobby I know’.
The Government’s opponents argue that the whole point of planning should be to make the consideration of the long-term use of land have priority over the short-term wish of landowners to make a profit and that this is what is now in jeopardy. In particular, they argue, agricultural land risks being turned over to development even though, they claim, such land may well be needed for farming in the future.
Nor is it just the encroachment of housing into the green spaces of the countryside that alarms the critics. The new planning regime, they say, will make it harder for local people to object to other major development projects, such as new power stations.
The Government, in turn, argues that its plans will make it easier for locals to have their say, especially on housing, compared with the Labour Government’s imposition of housing quotas through its regional strategies. But the sceptics are not persuaded. They argue that although the new plans give local people the opportunity to have their say and oppose development plans in their area, the proposals also give developers the chance to appeal and impose on the inspectors who will ultimately decide the obligation to adjudicate in favour of national objectives. In short, they say, the ‘presumption in favour of development’ will mean what it says: developers will get their way and our green and pleasant land will be defaced forever.
What’s your view?
- Do you think the Government is right or not to change the planning laws?
- Do you think the existing planning rules have been too restrictive of development in your own area or not?
- In particular, do you think the low rate of house building in recent years is due to restrictive planning laws or more to other factors, such as the shortage of affordable mortgages?
- Do you think the new planning proposals do provide adequate safeguards for protecting the countryside or not?
- Are you concerned or not that agricultural land will be turned over to housing?
- Do you think opponents of the plans, such as the National Trust, are guilty of ‘nihilistic selfishness’ and of exaggerating the dangers or not?
- And do you think the Government will stick to its guns or retreat in the face of opposition?
This commentary was corrected on 05/09/11. It had incorrectly said that the Government wanted to change Britain's planning laws. This has now been changed to say England's planning laws.