By Clive Wakely. Post war Britain has benefited hugely from a planning system that has protected our environment from harmful development, however proposed Government reforms threaten to place economic growth ahead of all other considerations.
Many people and campaign groups aren’t convinced however.
Indeed many question the need to make any but trivial amendments to longstanding legislation that has served the nation so well for so many years.
At the heart of these concerns is the innocuous sounding term “presumption in favour” contained within the government’s proposals; a form of words that has been widely interpreted as suggesting an abandonment of impartiality insofar as consideration of planning requests are concerned, towards a bias in favour of the development and the developer.
According to government spokesmen the presumption in favour of sustainable development is intended to simplify things, while guaranteeing certain minimum protections for the environment.
However these legislative changes arise from the difficulty government agencies have experienced in recent times in respect of major economic projects, such as Heathrow’s Terminal Five; it does not stretch the imagination too far to speculate as to what the main thrust of the changes are really all about.
Local objections to Terminal Five, for instance, stalled development of this major government backed project for years, the same may well be the case in respect of the relatively recently announced and “economically vital” high speed rail link.
Government spokesmen, however, would have the gullible believe that the new legislation has nothing to do with building pro-developer bias into planning legislation but merely to streamline the procedures required to facilitate the building of the hundreds of thousands of homes that this country so desperately needs, without suffering intolerable delays arising from frivolous nimby-style objections from local people.
Although the Government recognizes that this country needs more homes it conveniently forgets that the biggest problem in delivering them isn’t frivolous objections to planning but a lack of ready finance – particularly the reluctance of bailed out banks to make credit available.
Furthermore, as immigration is both directly and indirectly the main driver of population growth, it clearly isn’t planning legislation that needs a radical overhaul but that pertaining to immigration; that and the need to actually enforce the law in respect of removing Britain’s estimated one million illegal immigrants.
If nothing else the proposed planning legislation once more demonstrates the depth to which the government (or rather the Tory Party) is in the pocket of the developers, in much the same way as “all party” support for bank bailouts demonstrated the City’s influence over Westminster.
Despite Government spokesmen’s weasel words to the contrary, it is clear that the only considerations dominating these reforms are financial ones.
These proposals potentially present a huge risk to our countryside, historic environment and the precious local places that people value.
Nationalists believe that local people must retain their right to have their say on developments in their area; that planning decisions must be based on a whole raft of considerations, particularly including the cost to the local environment of any submitted proposal.
If the Government gets its way then the onus will be placed on local objectors to justify why a development should not proceed – in the face of planning committees who will be obliged to favour development projects as a matter of legislative course.
Should disputed planning decisions go to appeal, that is to a Government department as is currently the case, then few doubt that the developer will win out in all but the most environmentally damaging cases.
The proposed policy also depends on the existence of effective local authority planning schedules.
Should no comprehensive up-to-date local authority development plans exist, then it is likely that submitted planning applications will be judged according to the built-in presumption in favour of what the government describes as “sustainable development”.
Whereas it is clear that there is a case for sensible reform of existing planning laws it has to be recognized that the town and country planning system, generally, has served the country well.
Any changes must ensure that development is appropriate to location, prevents urban sprawl, safeguards designated areas and historic buildings, meets the needs of the community and be non-detrimental to the environment.
Unfortunately, what is proposed appears to be primarily about making it easier for friends of the Tory Party to make a fast buck even faster, and likely to come at an unacceptably high cost to both the environment and local democracy.