Planning changes will 'destroy countryside'


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George Osborne will signal today that the Government is to press ahead with highly controversial reforms to Britain's planning system which environmental groups fear will result in the destruction of rural England.

Mr Osborne will use his Budget speech to announce that, within days, ministers will publish their final National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – which removes the protection given to ordinary countryside, and which presumes the default answer to development proposals will be "Yes".

These represent the biggest changes to the planning system since it was set up by the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, and effectively change it from an instrument to protect the countryside into an instrument to foster economic growth.

The Chancellor will scupper the hopes of conservationists that the reforms might be watered down, by insisting growth must trump objections to greenfield development. Senior sources who have seen the finalised document, which was approved by a cabinet committee last Wednesday, said it offered few concessions to environmental campaigners.

There will still be a presumption in favour of "sustainable development" – ensuring the planning system makes it easier to build new homes, offices and factories. Groups like the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) fear this will give developers the opportunity for a building "free-for-all" in the countryside.

The Government will also refuse to give ground on a demand to keep protection for the "ordinary" countryside which represents the 55 per cent of rural England not covered by such designations as green belts or national parks. In previous guidance, in place since the 1970s, ordinary countryside was given an explicitly recognised value in making planning decisions, but in the new NPPF, this has simply been dropped. "If this goes ahead, it will be the biggest and most harmful change to the planning system since it was established 65 years ago, and a huge threat to the countryside," said Kate Houghton, of the CPRE.

Yet despite rumblings among its supporters, not least many of the four million members of the National Trust, which has campaigned vociferously against the changes, the Government is unrepentant. "If we are going to build a quarter of a million homes a year then there is no way we can do that without building on greenfield sites," said one source.

In one concession to those opposed to the new regime, the final NPPF will restore the presumption that priority should be given to building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites. The current draft framework only requires local development plans "should allocate land with the least environmental or amenity value where practical".