England's green and pleasant land. Photocredit: Sam Romilly.http://www.flickr.com/photos/31387699@N00/4675022016/sizes/l/in/photostream/
The British Government has retreated from its attempt to dismantle planning laws which have been in place for 60 years. Chancellor George Osborne had insisted that the countryside should be opened up to all-but unregulated development, under the draft National Planning Policy Framework. Initially Tories had reacted with fervour against opponents to the scheme, even branding them Trostskyite. Both now both Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Nick Clegg have intervened, and 240,000 National Trust members signed a petition against the proposed legislation, and the proposals have been significantly watered down.
The plans would have in effect given builders a green card to build, not just on brownfield sites, but also on fields, pastures, valleys and coastlines, with councils obliged to set aside 20 per cent more land for building houses. Now, though, in the amended legislation, protection for the countryside is back. Commentators across the political spectrum are jubilant (apart from Greenpeace, according to Alice Thomson in The Times), all agreeing that planning is essential both to save what beauty we have left, and yet to encourage economic growth.
An enormous improvement. Let’s “heave a huge sigh of relief,” said Geoffrey Lean on The Daily Telegraph. The campaign against the legislation worked. The plans of the government would have “replaced a system that – whatever its faults – aimed to balance the needs of society, the economy and the environment.” The proposals were poorly defined, and even scrapped a policy that respected “the intrinsic character and beauty” of the countryside. Planning must now encourage brownfield land – which is “an enormous improvement.”
This sceptred isle. Planning has been more emotive than foxhunting in the countryside, said Alice Thomson in The Times. The new legislation must have seemed like a “good idea” when it was touted. Current planning laws are over 1,400 pages long – they needed simplification. And then, to Osborne, it must have seemed that Britain could “build its way out of the recession.” When the draft was published, it was “as if this sceptred isle could end up a gray and unpleasant land full of bulldozers.” Whilst the “construction industry was thrilled, conservation groups were appalled.” But now that the planning laws have been changed – under the excellent guidance of Greg Clark, the Decentralisation and Cities minister – everyone’s happy – construction groups and conservation groups alike.
Look to the cities. Even The Guardian was happy, though its focus was slightly different. Simon Jenkins called the new document a “vast relief,” which may be the only time he’s ever agreed with someone in The Daily Telegraph. Urban development, “central to planning”, is now going to come before rural. Local planning will also be given “primacy.” And best of all the new framework “recognises that civilised societies use certainty in the allocation of land, through an agreed plan, as the best way to resolve conflicts over use.” One thing this little battle has done is to shine light “on the bizarre nature of modern British government.” But what should have been at the heart of it is urban regeneration.
Simpler is possible. And actually, said The Times editorial, what this framework shows is that “the UK is open for business once again.” The new planning laws will actually “make an important contribution to economic growth, particularly in areas of the country outside London and the South East.” The process has been an example of “good politics.” In the end, business “will have certainty, a simpler planning system and a clear signal that the Government is backing economic growth,” whilst the countryside gets its request “for a clear plan to be written in advance of applications.” And those thousand or so pages of incomprehensible planning laws? Well, they’ve been boiled down to a mere 58. “For a Government that has declared war on red tape but found this hard to achieve in many areas, yesterday’s announcement on planning was an encouraging sign that simpler is not only possible, but better.”