Lib Dems send Clegg back to drawing board on planning law

Party's MPs join growing rebellion as they hope to block scheme to create rural building boom

The Liberal Democrats have joined the rebellion against the Government’s controversial plans to relax the planning rules to allow more building in the countryside.

A confidential Lib Dem report, seen by The Independent, shows that the party's MPs and peers have rejected as "unacceptable" the proposal to rewrite the planning regulations to include "a presumption in favour of sustainable development".

Their strong criticism will put enormous pressure on Nick Clegg to water down the plans before a final version of the Government's planning guidance is published early next year. The Deputy Prime Minister is being lobbied on several fronts. The National Trust, which has led the campaign against a planning free-for-all, is seeking an urgent meeting with him.

He faces an embarrassing revolt in his Sheffield constituency, where the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) is organising a petition urging him to intervene to ensure the Government's plans are "radically revised." In a letter to Mr Clegg, the CPRE's South Yorkshire branch warns him that he could be repeating his "broken promise" over university tuition fees. Three years ago, the Lib Dem leader told the CPRE in Sheffield: "Our plans for our land must always be green. Fixing the economy must never come at the expense of protecting the environment."

Mr Clegg has a dilemma because David Cameron and George Osborne see the easing of planning rules as a crucial element of the Coalition's "go-for-growth" strategy, to which he is fully signed up. Ministers expect to make only relatively minor tweaks to their current planning proposals – which would fall far short of the big changes sought by the Lib Dem MPs and peers.

The move reflects growing anxiety in Lib Dem circles that the Conservatives, led by Mr Osborne, may tarnish the Lib Dems by downgrading the priority the Coalition gives to the environment. The Lib Dems have traditionally been seen as the "greenest" of the three main parties.

The report, written by Annette Brooke, co-chairman of the Lib Dem Parliamentary committee on communities and local government, criticised the Government's statement for putting the economy before the environment.

It said: "There is insufficient conformity throughout the document as to what sustainable development means. Throughout the document...the language of sustainable development morphs into a references to the importance of ‘sustainable economic growth'...The language in the document needs to be tightened up throughout to indicate that whilst economic growth is important it does not necessarily equate to sustainable development."

The Lib Dems said the Government's statement should retain the current presumption against "inappropriate development" in the green belt and a "brownfield first" policy of using disused industrial sites before undeveloped land. Incentives should be offered to developers to implement their existing planning permissions – such as for the 300,000 homes which have been approved but not built.

Mr Clegg's MPs and peers, while accepting the urgent need for more housing, rejected the Government's plan to "dictate to local authorities that they should identify a five-year land supply [for housing] plus 5 per cent." They said there must be "genuine sovereignty" for local development plans drawn up by councils.

The Lib Dems concluded: "We must have a balance between the three pillars – economy, social, and environment – not one overriding objective of growth. Adverse impacts should be absolutely quantified and not only considered relative to benefits when assessing whether a development should go ahead."

In his reply to the CPRE, Mr Clegg said he had passed on its concerns to Mr Clark. The Deputy Prime Minister insisted: "Liberal Democrats are committed to deliver a planning framework which can create economic prosperity; meet the needs for all sectors of society; protect our environment and its resources and provide a pathway to a low-carbon future."

A National Trust spokesman said: "We are aware of concern amongst MPs of all parties and within local government. However, there is still time for the Government to make the necessary changes to the NPPF that will produce the balanced system we need."

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