Sunday, 28 August 2011

Mrs Fowler's problem is nothing to do with the Coalition proposals on planning...

The view into Swaledale - nowhere near Sudbury but lovely nonetheless
Planning is a tricky business. Especially if, like me, you’re the elected representative of about 20,000 people living in West Yorkshire’s ‘green belt’ – or the glorious South Pennines as I prefer to call it. However, the degree of rubbish that is spoken about planning beggars belief. And is only topped by the utter nonsense spouted from all sides on the subject of housing and housing markets.

The biggest bit of nonsense is the implication that our current planning system doesn’t start from the premise that the land owner has a right to develop. The point of planning has not been to stop development but to direct that development. This has always been so and, despite the efforts of socialists and assorted NIMBYs, remains the case.

So when the government proposes a simplified planning frame work that presumes in favour of “sustainable development”, why do we get an explosion of shock and wild claims that vast acres of England’s green and pleasant land will be snaffled up by evil housing developers seeking only vast profits from the building of ticky-tacky boxes all over those productive fields.

We get writing like this evoking England’s wonders:

The fields are at their most golden and shadowy now, their soft lines framed by the ash trees; the sloes and blackberries are swelling, and plums squash underfoot. Two bikes are abandoned by the track, left by children who are exploring the woods. A young couple smooch in the weakening summer light. A flushed jogger from the local estate waves, as his Spaniel strains to get off the lead and on to the open land.

The writer, one Rebecca Fowler, wishes to protect her interests as the owner of a fine old house with a glorious view. And apparently the Coalition's policies are threatening this interest:

Twelve months on, it is not the spectre of ghosts that face us, but bulldozers. We are at the centre of a battle for the countryside threatened by potentially drastic “planning reforms”. As Clive Aslet outlined this week in The Daily Telegraph, under the new government proposals, the opportunity for effective local opposition to housing developments will be superseded, and cash incentives offered to councils to pass plans in a bid to boost the economy with a quick-fix, concrete-coated solution.

Immediately I smelled a rat – this woman is opposing an existing planning proposal under existing planning rules. Why – other than the newspaper’s campaign – is she referring to rules not yet in place?

Yet that view is now threatened by a development of 170 houses. Despite passionate opposition, not just from ourselves but more than 2,000 locals, English Heritage and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, plans are close to being approved.

So it has precisely nothing to do with the new National Planning Policy Framework at all. But is a purely local debate as to whether or not Mrs Fowler’s view should be spoiled conducted in the context of planning policies and planning guidance introduced by a Labour government.

For sure, the NPPF won’t change this – there’s still a view that the owners of property should be allowed to develop that property unless there are reasons for that not to happen. And the presumption in favour of development enshrined in the original 1947 Act is, for the first time, to be conditional on it being “sustainable”.

The substantive change in the rules following from NPPF is that the specifics of planning – where to develop housing, industry and so forth – it no longer dictated by national guidance or regional plans but by the local councillors we elect to represent us. People who we can ‘un-elect’ should we so wish. The ability of developers to appeal to distant inspectors is curtailed and the centralising, controlling ‘planning policy guidance’ and ‘planning policy statements’ will be consigned to the dustbin.

Right now those 2000 people (plus Mrs Fowler) in Sudbury are opposing a vast, impenetrable bureaucratic system that satisfies no-one except the planners and lawyers who make their livings from its byzantine detail. Allowing local decisions makes sense – it may still mean Mrs Fowler loses her view but that decision will be made by politicians who she and her neighbours elect not by a government official in Bristol.


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