The battle over the government’s planning reforms was a very English Revolution.
The battle over the government’s planning reforms, which ended with a victory for campaigners led by the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, was a very English Revolution. The idea of our sky and natural landscape being a community asset that nobody – including the state – actually owns, is firmly rooted in the national imagination. Messing with the landscape can be a dangerous political business.
The new reforms, published by the planning minister Greg Clark earlier this month, are the most profound shake-up of the system since the introduction of the Green Belt in 1947. The idea is to kick-start the economy with a simplified planning system that favours “development”, with constraints added to prevent the countryside being concreted over.
Initial reaction from campaigners was that Clark had recognised the intrinsic value of our “matchless” countryside. But the real test will be whether the reforms are clear enough in practice. The problem with planning law is that what is deemed “significant harm” is open to interpretation by inspectors. Clark appears to have won some serious last minute concessions from the Treasury – ones that George Osborne would never have allowed had his authority not been weakened by his handling of the Budget and a sense that the Tory-led coalition had “lost touch” with core voters.
After writing in the New Statesman last September about my concerns with the draft planning reforms, especially in regards to heritage and the landscape, I met with Clark at the Commons. Clark, whose father was a milkman, comes from a very different social background to Osborne and is far more in touch with what Tory voters are thinking, such as those in his constituency of Tunbridge Wells.
When the ill thought-out draft National Planning Policy (NPPF) Framework was released last July, the ink hardly dry on the cheques written by developers, the grass roots felt strongly betrayed by the Tory elite. Clark should be credited for standing up to Osborne. But on the controversial subject of wind farms, the NPPF remains silent. Placing the divisive subject of wind farms outside the planning system is not politically sensible. Last Thursday, a new rural lobby organisation, National Opposition to Wind Farms, with tens of thousands of members, was launched at the House of Lords, while over 100 Tory MPs wrote to David Cameron in January warning him not to keep Chris Huhne’s target of installing 32,000 turbines on and off-shore by 2020.
Campaigners have won the first phase of the battle, but it is still unclear how far wind farms will be allowed to despoil the countryside and historic locations. What is needed, as English Heritage has long argued, is the re-introduction of the Heritage Protection Bill, combined with a new Listings system that gives tightened statutory protection to assets including the 1500 or so heritage buildings that are open to the public and help contribute over £12.1 billion to the economy.
Such a Bill is the only way to protect the heritage that makes this country so unique. Decisions such as allowing a wind farm to be built beside the Naseby battle site, or next to Ashby St Ledger’s Manor, where the Gunpowder plot was schemed, have done little to re-assure critics.