The government's 'sustainable' new planning policy invites corruption and will sink us in urban sprawl, writes Simon Jenkins in the Guardian
With parliament in recess the government this week sneaked out the most astonishing change to the face of England in half a century. A "national planning policy framework" replaces all previous regulation and encourages building wherever the market takes it, crucially in the two-thirds of rural England outside national parks, green belts and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Farms, forests, hills, valleys, estuaries and coasts will be at the mercy of a "presumption in favour of sustainable development". The "default response" to any planning application is to be "yes".
The word sustainable should never appear in an act of parliament. It is a weasel word, an adjective not qualifying a noun but lightly dusting it with vague political approval. Sustainability is the sort of Blairism that gave us downsizing for sacking and humanitarian intervention for war. The only sustainable meadow is a meadow. Sustainable development is a contradiction in terms. It means development.
The localism bill now before parliament is a straight developers' ramp. Drafted by the local government secretary, Eric Pickles, and the business secretary, Vince Cable, it stresses business and "national economic policy" over conservation at every turn. It is the outcome of intense lobbying by the construction industry. Pickles and Cable are mere purveyors of building plots to the capitalist classes. The words development and business occur in the bill 340 times, the word countryside just four.
The bill and addendum breach the core principle of planning, that the long-term use of land, the scarcest of resources, should take precedence over an owner's right to profit. That is why there are no bungalows on the white cliffs of Dover and no wind farms on the Chilterns. It is why, when you look out over the Severn valley, you do not see Bristol merged with Gloucester.
Great champions of the countryside, such as Octavia Hill, Oliver Rackham, Clough Williams-Ellis and Marion Shoard, sought a regime in which rural England kept its head above the tide of urbanisation. Protection was embodied in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and a presumption, given the irreversibility of urbanisation, against building on green land.
I have read parliamentary bills all my life, but the localism one is the most wretched capitulation to a single lobby I know. It is a junk heap of cliché. It asserts that building must be allowable "for prosperity … for people … and for places". It need only be economically, socially or environmentally sustainable – "components to be pursued in an integrated way, looking for solutions which deliver multiple goals", whatever that means. Development need only show it is "planned and undertaken responsibly". There is no definition of "responsibly". Such vagueness puts every rural acre in play as "worth a try".
Planning, once proudly independent, is now effectively an arm of Cable's department. It is told that it "must not act as an impediment to growth". This stands on its head the purpose of planning, which is to guard the public interest irrespective of market forces. Its whole point is to be an impediment.
Under the bill the old upper-tier regional targets and spatial strategies are scrapped, with local authorities to write new ones based on what "local people" want. These are to be guided by parish councils and "business forums". The latter can be any group of 21 people who "live or work" locally. These shadowy, self-selected people are charged not with ascertaining local opinion, but with allocating plots for building and even promoting "more development than is set out in the local plan". In particular they must help "deliver" a 20% increase in land available for housing.
Should a neighbourhood be so reckless as to want to protect its environment, the planning authority is obligated to "meet local development needs" with "sufficient flexibility to respond to rapid shifts in demand". This confusion of need and demand is an elementary economic howler.
Worse follows. Half the councils in England have no strategy plans at all. In this case, planning approval is to be assumed. It is also to be assumed "wherever the plan is silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date", a stunning Orwellian phrase.
This bill is philistine, an abuse of local democracy and an invitation to corruption. Its impact statement accepts that local electors may "resist development proposals that are not in line with their aspirations", in other words they may opt for conservation. Yet when developers appeal, inspectors are told that their duty is to concede on grounds of overriding national policy. The bias is shameless.
Two groups, apart from developers, will benefit. One is planning lawyers, who will be rubbing their hands in glee and saluting St Eric and St Vincent. The other will be a new army of "Swampies", who will defend rural England with the same anarchy as Pickles is attacking it. With the countryside facing a return to the ribbon-and-sprawl of the 1930s, litigation and direct action will be conservation's only defence.
There is no argument that planning is too slow. That does not justify throwing out baby, bath water and all. There is no evidence that a shortage of green land is impeding growth. House-builders and hypermarkets already hold large land banks. 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.
There is now probably more developable land left over from manufacture and lying unused in England than ever in history. It is mostly serviced, with infrastructure, housing, schools and a working population to hand. By definition it is more sustainable than virgin countryside. It is there that planning should direct development.
Countryside needs no sentimental defence. Most Britons find it beautiful and want it preserved. When the Chipping Norton set see what they have unleashed on their rolling acres they will doubtless be appalled. But we are back to the NHS, forests and student fees, to ministers in a hurry being exploited by lobbyists on the make.
This time it really matters. For the unprotected countryside to become the lasting victim of the credit crunch is tragic. Vince Cable last week patronised America for being in thrall to "a few rightwing nutters". So is he.
Simon Jenkins, the Guardian