Some readers will recall that not so long ago, in the autumn of 2011, the government released its first stab at trimming down Britain's onerous planning regulations. The National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF as it became known, was seen by the coalition as a useful new weapon in its battle to control the deficit - more houses, more wealth, more growth.
However they hadn't counted on the intervention of hitherto friendly countryside groups, and their strong opposition to one line of classic Whitehall jargon contained within the new document: the 'presumption in favour of sustainable development'. When the National Trust, CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England), RSPB and several others broke cover to criticise the plans, many assumed that the white flag would be hoisted over Westminster and an apology issued... but no.
Instead an unseemly war of words began (detailed here) that ought to have benefitted neither party, but ended up swelling the membership levels of the groups involved, and raising respect for the Government's 'Growth Agenda' among many who thought they'd never see the day either Conservative or Lib Dem Ministers would dare take on the National Trust.
But the brief merrymaking couldn't last for ever, and before long the NPPF was sent back to the drawing board and a second draft slated for Spring 2012.
Well the revised document is now set for release - expected to be slotted in alongside the budget - and the early signs are good for those who were concerned that our green spaces might be in peril. Earlier this year David Cameron promised that "our reforms will make it easier for communities to say 'we are not going to have a big plonking housing estate landing next to the village'."
Then only a week ago the Daily Telegraph reported that "the final draft of the new planning rules, which will be published later this month, includes greater protections for heritage sites and the environment."
But neither of these teasers appears to have done the trick and the cold war is heating up.
"Fears of 'Black Wednesday' for green causes" screamed a headline in the Independent earlier this week, "activists expect bad news for the environment to be buried in detail of Osborne's speech" it continued. "We are fighting hard to avert a Black Wednesday for the environment next week. If this goes the wrong way, we are going to be picking up the pieces for the next decade" exclaimed the excitable Martin Harper from the RSPB.
A few weeks earlier, former poet laureate and newly appointed president of the CPRE, Sir Andrew Motion in a speech to his new charges at the introductory dinner, had rung his own warning sirens, saying "Government planning reform could place two thirds of rural England at the mercy of a presumption in favour of development, this is a critical moment for the countryside."
For those of us who have never seen planning and protecting the countryside as conflicting issues (and I count among them organisations like the Countryside Alliance, Shelter, National Farmers Union and Friends of the Earth) this resumption in conflict is all a bit depressing.
It is hard to believe that many would disagree with the proposal to simplify the planning regulations to allow for sensible and appropriate development where it is approved by local communities. Doing so will be of most benefit to those who live and work in the countryside; from struggling rural businesses trying to expand, to young families desperate to get on the housing ladder in the areas in which they work and have grown up. What many agreed was missing from the first NPPF was a proper definition of 'sustainable development' (alongside suitable protections against development that is opposed by the local residents) and a reinstating of the 'brownfield first' clause that had been inexplicably removed from the framework.
While we wait and see if these changes are made, one can only hope that this time around the country avoids another polarised debate that pits countryside vs growth in a reductive and undignified squabble.
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