Leading article: Protect our green and pleasant land

For more than 60 years, the English countryside has been preserved from unthinking development by a demanding set of planning laws which evolved from the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Too much so, this Government believes. It is taking the 1,300 pages of planning regulations and reducing them to just 52. Groups which campaign to protect the rural landscape have been fighting to prevent the Government sweeping away these laws. It looks as though they have failed.

George Osborne will make reference to the Government's intentions in his Budget today. But the full National Planning Policy Framework is not to be published until next week, in an apparent attempt to make it look as though the changes are not primarily driven by economics. But the truth is that the planning system is being changed from an instrument that protects the countryside to one that facilitates economic growth – in two key ways. First, the system is to be altered so that the default answer to any "sustainable" development proposal will be Yes. Second, the historic recognition that ordinary countryside has "intrinsic value" will be scrapped.

These measures go way too far. There is no question that Britain needs more new homes. And we would argue that the definition of the Green Belt needs to be adjusted to facilitate more building. But these measures do not affect the Green Belt, they apply to the ordinary, unprotected countryside. The danger is that the changes will promote ribbon development between our major cities, changing the look of the country for ever.

During a three-month consultation on the changes, the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England found serious risks, but just two small concessions have been made: a recognition that brownfield sites are to be preferred, and a definition of "sustainable" that would otherwise have meant whatever developers wanted it to.

The English countryside needs more protection if it is not to be disfigured by development. We must not allow short-term economic interests to desecrate our heritage and endanger our long-term wellbeing.