Our campaign influenced the government's new planning policy to protect heritage more.
While the revised National Planning Policy Framework is a huge improvement on the original draft, Planning minister Greg Clark remains silent on the troubling question of government clarity over the position of wind farms, especially next to historic heritage sites of national significance. Spear’s has campaigned vigorously on this subject and although we welcome Mr Clark’s stance in taking measures to protect the historic environment in the NPPF, the concern we have is that the revised planning reforms have now placed the issue of wind farm sites outside the planning system.
Wind farms are not addressed in the published NPPF, and there was only one reference to our ‘historic environment’ in Greg Clark’s Commons statement on 27 March about the NPPF. The revised NPPF is actually quite a clever document because it states that there is a presumption in favour of sustainable development but then goes on to list a small textbook of examples of what is not sustainable.
I was in Oxford a few days after the NPPF was published and bumped into Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, before he gave a talk on his Short History of England. Jenkins has been very much the commander-in-chief of the debate over planning. He told me that while the new NPPF is in many ways a great victory for lovers of the countryside, it is by no means the end of the battle.
The first phase of the countryside battle has been won by the campaigners, but the next chapter — getting clarity as to how far wind farms can be allowed to despoil our precious countryside and heritage — is still far from over. What is needed, as English Heritage have long argued under Simon Thurley, is the reintroduction of the Heritage Protection Bill. Spear’s has campaigned for such a Bill to be passed through Parliament and we will continue to push for it as it is the only way that our heritage can be truly protected.
The reason that Clark personally has to be applauded is that he clearly had to stand up to the Treasury — and in particular the coalition’s CEO George Osborne, whose chief interests are metropolitan, financial, political and economic rather rural or heritage.
Throughout our campaign — at the Tory party conference in Manchester and at Davos — I have taken any opportunity of seeing George to question him about why he is so keen to let the developers’ bulldozers loose on the historic environment that makes Britain so attractive to foreign investors, tourists and those that live here and his answer was always: ‘Britain has always had building, and towns and villages have always had expansion.’
But that is disingenuous. George Osborne is a highly intelligent politician and knows perfectly well that the Town and Country Planning Act was introduced in 1947 precisely to protect the English landscape from becoming an urban sprawl. Thankfully, in his Conference speech he did allude to the fact that the UK cannot afford to simply embrace a pro-renewables energy policy that means much of the country cannot afford to heat their homes.
With several major European energy companies pulling out of nuclear investment in the UK, and with Huhne thankfully out of the way, now is the time for both Cameron and Osborne to show some leadership and take notice of the letter of 30 January from 100 Tory MPs urging them both to review subsidies for wind farms and also to better allow local communities to fight unwanted wind farm planning applications.
Clark claims that such measures have been included in the NPPF — we shall wait and see what happens in reality. As we have argued before, the problem is that EU targets and binding commitments allow planning inspectors to overrule all countryside and heritage considerations in a deeply undemocratic way that makes a mockery of Localism and planning justice. Even Cameron admitted recently to the House of Commons that wind farms built across the British countryside have been ‘over-subsidised and wasteful of public money’.
We cannot take our green countryside and our great heritage for granted. Housing developers have donated large amounts of money to political parties in order to have a ‘presumption in favour of development’ written into the new NPPF.
We at Spear’s, along with the Daily Telegraph, National Trust, English Heritage, CPRE and other heritage and conservation groups, have been fighting hard to get a return to a ‘presumption in favour of conservation’ for the exceptional heritage and landscapes that contribute so much to the national economy through jobs, visitors, tourism and investment in Britain. Last year, the heritage industry was worth over £12.1 billion.
After Spear’s sent our letter to the prime minister (page 25) urging him to protect heritage and the countryside in the NPPF — arriving at Downing Street (via Chris Heaton-Harris MP) in the week that Greg Clark was putting the final tweaks to the NPPF — I received an official reply from David Cameron saying that he thanked our 80 or so signatories from the world of business and the arts, including Elizabeth Hurley, Sir Tim Rice, Sir Rocco Forte, and that he would be looking into what we had to say.
We welcome that David Cameron has highlighted ‘heritage’ and ‘countryside’ as crucial planks of the government’s £39 million ‘Britain is GREAT’ campaign. Sabotaging our heritage with a plague of wind farms near sites of national historic significance, however, is not sustainable or sensible. We urge Greg Clark to continue his good work with — as Simon Jenkins has argued — a new statutory protection listing system for designated landscapes and revised powers of protection for the Grade I and Grade II* buildings that make us the envy of the world.