THE BLOG

There is a Middle Ground on Planning and, Unusually, it Does Make the Most Sense

12/09/2011 00:00 | Updated 11 November 2011

Since I first wrote about the Battle for Planning Rights for this website just two weeks ago, the war of words on the Government's draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has steadily intensified, reaching fever pitch in the past week now Parliament has returned.

It is probably worth repeating what this is all about. The government have produced draft (so a first stab - subject to consultation) guidance (i.e. an overarching theme that should guide decision-making) on the way in which planning is conducted across the country. The bone of contention in this massively pared-down planning document centres on the presumption "in favour of sustainable development" and what that might mean. It is not, one might think, the sort of thing to get the bloody boiling; but one would be very wrong...

"Unless the Government thinks again, its proposals will cause irreversible damage to both our towns and countryside" proclaimed Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). "The general tone of the planning framework is fundamentally wrong" continued the National Trust's director-general Dame Fiona Reynolds. "No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle," reply the Chancellor George Osborne and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles. "We will fight for jobs, prosperity and the right protection for our countryside."

The debate has been a curious one. The Labour Party have remained largely silent, apart from a strange call from shadow local government minister, Caroline Flint, to extend the consultation period (the consultation began on 25th July and doesn't finish until 17th October, so you might think that would be enough time for those involved to register an opinion). Similarly few, if any, MPs from either the yellow or blue half of the Coalition have broken ranks to discuss the guidance. This has left the job of opposing the government's plans to the traditional countryside campaign groups (National Trust, CPRE, English Heritage etc) and the Daily Telegraph, which has started a campaign - 'Hands off our Land' - that has provided the traditional newspaper of the Shires with a week's worth of headlines about the danger posed to Britain's green spaces.

The question is whether this sort of conservative (small 'c') fratricide is entirely necessary? I think probably not.

At the Countryside Alliance we believe that planning decisions should be made at a local level, making full use of local experience and local knowledge. It is the rural communities themselves that best know what is required and what can be successful in their area. Putting the emphasis on local consent would also force developers to adapt any proposals to ensure they fit with the demands of the communities in which they wish to build. It's a middle-ground, certainly, but given we are only in the draft consultation phase, it would make sense - and be relatively simple - to adapt the current proposal to place a greater emphasis on localism, thus hopefully calming the souls of those afraid the NPPF might precipitate a mass spree of house building in the wrong places.

Perhaps even more appropriately, it is also a point on which the two warring factions unite.

In the green corner, Dame Fiona said on Wednesday that the National Trust "strongly welcome attempts to engage local communities in the planning process" and on the Today Programme on Thursday morning Ben Cowell, the Trust's external affairs director, said he was not opposed to growth that had strong local support.

Meanwhile in the growth corner, we have a Coalition Government with a much vaunted commitment to localism and a long-term goal of devolving responsibility for local issues down to the closest unit possible.

Streamlining the planning rules while also putting the emphasis on the local community would benefit those areas that wish to increase their housing provision or rural businesses looking to expand, without compromising the safety of our natural environment.

Every so often the middle-ground, the compromise, the third way... is the right way.