The intrinsic value of ordinary countryside will continue to be recognised in the new “streamlined” planning system, the Government announced today in a concession to countryside campaigners.
However, critics maintained that the Government had lost sight of the fact that the planning system in England was supposed to preserve the countryside in the face of ever-increasing pressures as one of its principal purposes.
Tellingly, housebuilders welcomed the changes to the planning laws – the biggest shake-up of the planning system since it began in 1947.
The concession was one of several compromises made by ministers after the original plans, published last summer, were fiercely criticised by environmental groups led by the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
The new planning framework reduces 1,300 pages of planning guidance, contained in 44 separate documents, to one document 47 pages in length, outlining a system which is intended first and foremost to foster development and economic growth, in the face of the recession and the worst housing shortage for many years.
During the autumn the dispute became heated, with the Government appearing to be at odds with many of its natural supporters, to the discomfort of Conservative MPs.
The document published today by the Planning Minister, Greg Clark, makes it clear that despite the urging of the Chancellor, George Osborne, who was the original driving force behind the changes, and who vigorously defended the draft, ministers have listened to the criticisms.
A principal one was that the value of the ordinary “everyday” countryside – the 55 per cent of England not covered by National Parks, greenbelts and the like – was no longer given explicit value in the new system, as it had been in previous planning guidance. This has now been changed and Mr Clark today told MPs that the new framework “recognises the intrinsic value and beauty of the countryside, whether specifically designated or not.”
Other concessions included a return to the recognition that brownfield sites should be built on before greenfield sites, and a much wider, environmentally-friendly definition of “sustainable development” – important because “a presumption in favour of sustainable development” remains at the heart of the new system.
However, the most contentious wording of all in the draft – “decision takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is Yes” – has been dropped.
This phrase, taken straight from the Plan for Growth which was part of Mr Osborne’s budget last year, was described by the Director-General of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds, as “incendiary”.
Mr Clark today said that “there was a pretty widespread cross-section of views that it was unhelpful.” He said: “It didn’t give an accurate summary of the law, which is that a [planning] application is determined in accordance with the development plan,” adding: “There’s no point in having a consultation if you don’t listen to people with constructive views.”
Dame Fiona, who had been the Government’s harshest critic, gave the final version of the framework a cautious welcome. “All these changes improve the document and give it a better tone and balance,” she said. The Trust said in a statement: “The Government has listened to public concerns.”
The CPRE similarly welcomed the changes. “We believe ministers have made significant progress towards meeting the concerns raised by rural campaigners, making some vital improvements that should achieve better planning outcomes,” CPRE spokesman said. “Ultimately, however, the proof of the new policy framework will be how it works in practice.”
Housing developers and the property industry generally welcomed the new system. The British Property Federation, the leading body representing landlords and commercial property
developers, said the changes to the draft “will go a long way to easing the concerns of the NPPF’s critics.”
Liz Peace, the BPF chief executive, said: “We believe the NPPF is now a more moderate and sensible document. The changes to the framework do not, however, alter its overall objective of supporting well-planned sustainable growth within a streamlined, plan-led system. Government has made some sensible concessions while still ensuring that local authorities must provide homes and jobs where they are needed.”