The National Trust is to be allowed to "claim victory" in its battle with the Government to restrict planning, while behind the scenes ministers plough ahead with reforms to kickstart development across the country, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.
Ministers are already drawing up changes to their draft planning framework designed to appease the conservation group and other countryside campaigners. Details of the new framework – which slashed planning guidance from hundreds of pages to just 52 – will be fleshed out, after officials were forced to concede too much of it was open to interpretation. "The National Trust will have to claim victory," a cabinet source said, arguing that critics of the policy had wilfully misrepresented it after "reading the planning guidance upside down".
The most significant concession is expected to be the reinstatement of a "brownfield first" rule to ensure previously developed sites are built on before open countryside. There is also said to be "room for manoeuvre" on a number of other key areas.
"Peace is breaking out all over," said Dame Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust, which has published a mini manifesto of 10 key changes. These include dropping a demand for 20 per cent more land for building, allowing communities a limited right to appeal against development and giving councils power to refuse proposals that would cause harm. "We are not looking for victory," said a trust spokesman. "We are looking for a planning system that works in the way it needs to."
In a sign of the new harmony, Dame Fiona sent a hamper of scones to Eric Pickles, the minister in charge of planning, and his wife, Irene.
The stand-off with the Government had become increasingly fractious. Last week, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, spoke to this newspaper about the reforms. The claim that creating a presumption in favour of sustainable development was "a massive erosion of the ability to conserve, is bollocks, frankly", he said. However, ministers are privately nervous about being seen to take on the National Trust, which last week revealed its membership had soared to more than four million for the first time. Dorset was the county with the highest proportion of members: almost a fifth of the population is signed up. Ironically, it was a housing development in that county which is seen as the testbed for many of the reforms.
The development in the village of Buckland Newton is in the constituency of Oliver Letwin, Cabinet Office minister for policy. Residents might not realise it, but their attempts to secure affordable housing for local families have become the catalyst for the coalition's planning shake-up.
With house prices up to 10 times local wages, and young people forced to leave the village where they grew up, a Community Property Trust of local people was formed, with the backing of West Dorset district council, the Homes and Communities Association and the Tudor Trust, who all put up money. A development of 10 eco-friendly homes at Lydden Meadow is modelled on a converted farmhouse. Building began in November. People began moving in on 1 August; the last house was occupied two weeks ago. From the Gaggle of Geese pub and post office to the village hall and school, campaigners say community services would have been lost without an injection of new blood.
Nicky Barker, a former parish councillor who spent seven years getting the project off the ground, said the community can become sustainable again: "Instead of becoming a retirement ghetto, it becomes a balanced community with a need for a school, shop and a village hall – all the things that a balanced community needs."
Villagers developed a "Community Land Trust" model to buy and build two- to four-bedroom homes for people with long-standing family connections to the village. Kim Park, 27, a steel worker, has moved in to one with his girlfriend, Kirsty Sullivan, 19, a pre-school assistant. "Normally, Londoners buy around here, and there are a lot are second homes," Mr Park said. "We can't touch that with the wages we get down here."
Five homes are rented and five have been sold under a shared-ownership arrangement, which allows residents to own up to 80 per cent of the property. Owners wishing to move out must sell their equity to people with connections to the village.
In August, days after the birth of their daughter, Ida, Matt Russell, 29, a pub kitchen manager in nearby Dorchester, and his partner, Lydia Russell, 26, began renting a three-bedroom house in Lydden Meadow, after a seven-year wait. From their combined salary of £22,000, they pay £540 a month in rent.
"Obviously, we wanted to live in the country," said Mr Russell. "My parents are here, my grandparents are here, I went to the primary school just up the road and even the toddlers' play group. All my friends from school and the village have moved out from Buckland Newton because they couldn't afford to live here. I have come back to where I was born to give my daughter the same sort of life really."