Amid the coldest summer since 1993, riots, e-petitions and increasing unemployment figures, it is no wonder that the Government’s proposals to reform the planning system through its draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) took a back seat.
Over the past few days, however, the debate over the Government’s ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ has exploded into life with critics, such as the National Trust, arguing that the reforms are “fundamentally wrong” and the Financial Times supporting the notion that the phrase is “vaguely defined”.
Having openly criticised the National Trust for its “risible claims” and accusing those opposing the planning reforms as guilty of “nihilistic selfishness”, the Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, has since softened his approach. He is now prepared to engage with opponents in order to address “particular aspects” if it is felt that the proposals are unclear.
But, the campaign to oppose the reforms is gathering pace with the National Trust beginning to mobilise its 3.6 million members – a campaign which has so far already attracted 12,000 petition signatures. The President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and famous author, Bill Bryson, has also shared his concern in an interview with the Observer. In addition, the Daily Telegraph has launched its own campaign, ‘Hands off our Land’, urging the Government to “rethink”.
With the Coalition under pressure to kick-start the economy, it raises the question whether localism and economic growth can go hand-in-hand. To some extent, it seems hypocritical to argue that people should have a greater say in the future development of their local areas, while at the same time pursuing an agenda which will, according to some, make it harder for local authorities to refuse planning applications.
What is clear is the pressing need to address the current housing shortage and to support businesses, which will in turn pave the way to a prosperous economy.
Indeed, the NPPF was welcomed by the construction and housing industries which argue that the current planning system is “stifling economic activity” and is in need of desperate reform. Without doubt, the Government should be applauded for trying to cut bureaucracy in a system which is slow and complex at the best of times.
Suggestions that the Government may be forced into yet another embarrassing U-turn, similar to that following the debacle which was caused as a result of the Government’s proposals to sell-off public forests seem premature.
In a joint article in the Financial Times, both George Osborne and Eric Pickles have reiterated that, “planning reform is key to our economic recovery” and that “no one should underestimate our determination to win this battle.”
Whatever the level of need for economic growth, the Conservatives are playing a dangerous game. They risk alienating those within their own party, both at a national and local level, by taking on organisations with which many Tory supporters will sympathise.
Only time will tell whether the Government can find the elusive common ground between localism and economic growth. As they try to do so, Greg Clark and his ministerial colleagues face a mounting challenge if they are to bring the ‘Tory heartland’ – rural England – with them.