The Battle for Planning Rights

A war is currently being waged in Britain. It is one that threatens to tear this sceptered isle in two, turning neighbour against neighbour and friends into enemies.

A war is currently being waged in Britain. It is one that threatens to tear this sceptered isle in two, turning neighbour against neighbour and friends into enemies. I refer not to the rioters and looters versus the law-abiding majority; nor to the debate over whether a Simon Cowell-less XFactor is inferior or superior to one with the token ugly bloke from Take That; but to the ever-encroaching battle for planning rights in rural England.

On the one side we have the Coalition government. At its vanguard, Business Secretary and former economic soothsayer Vince Cable, is joined by Planning Minister Greg Clark; who says the proposals in his department's new National Planning Policy Framework "set out national planning policy more concisely, and in doing so make clearer the importance of planning to safeguarding our extraordinary environment and meeting the needs of communities, now and in the future."

On the other, the government is met by the combined and fearsome forces of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Trust. Of these, the charge is being led by Shaun Spiers of the CPRE and Simon Jenkins, peerless wordsmith and Chairman of the National Trust, who says "there is no argument that planning is too slow. There is no evidence that a shortage of green land is impeding growth. There is no 'need' to build on green-field sites anywhere in Britain. There is merely a 'demand' from those wishing to profit from it."

In recent weeks this conflict has become more terrible than either party could have imagined. What had begun as a classic phony Westminster war, with each side taking long-range quoted-based potshots at the other, escalated when the diminutive but smiley Local Government Minister, Bob Neill, accused the other side of being "a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups." "This is more about a small number of interest groups trying to justify their own existence, going out of their way by picking a fight with Government" he continued, leaving many of his Cabinet colleagues wincing behind closed doors.

There is an unwritten rule in politics: don't take aim at the National Trust. As the second biggest membership organisation in Britain, the chances are that most of your constituents will either be paid-up disciples, or be the family of paid-up Trust disciples, so it's a brave MP who goes toe-to-toe with Jenkins et al. And you can redouble that rule if the MP in question is a Tory. But this is the Cameroon Conservative Party, detoxifying and demystifying as it goes. So, on Tuesday, the previously-mentioned Greg Clark re-joined the fight with aplomb, saying that the National Trust's claims that areas of Green Belt would be threatened by the planning changes were ''risible'', before adding that those who sought to ''preserve in aspic'' their towns were guilty of ''nihilistic selfishness''. Ouch.

At this point it might be worth telling you where my own iron is in this fire. The Countryside Alliance does, of course, stand beside the National Trust and CPRE in promoting the well-being and maintenance of Britain's priceless and cherished countryside. But equally, we are aware that many people living and working in rural villages and towns up and down the country are crying out for an opportunity either to provide affordable housing for their children (a major problem as I explained recently on this very website), or to expand their growing rural business, and the current planning legislation is a major impediment to both.

When you look past the catty war of words between membership organisation and Government, this debate is actually one of vital importance. Urban Britain is crammed to bursting and desirable areas across the country are massively oversubscribed. Meanwhile the cost of living in the countryside is rising while rural wages fall, which drives people out of the areas in which they have grown up and now work.

Construction companies and building developers will always want to build on the areas which yield the most profits, and residents will always oppose developments in the nicest areas. Somehow a compromise must be found which brings together central and local government, developers and, most importantly, local residents to find a solution that can benefit all parties. While no-one wants to see Simon Jenkins' doomsday scenario of the countryside concreted over; we also don't want to condemn rural Britain to permanent holiday home status, lifeless and joyless for all but a few summer months.

It's time to call an armistice and for all parties to get back round the table. The future of our green spaces depend on it.


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