‘Can you imagine the outcry if we looked at our countryside without the railway system and somebody suggested that we build railways?’
Let me start with a disclaimer that I am not a planning lawyer. However, I was asked to comment for Ben Goldsmith’s issue on the reforms put forward by the planning minister Nick Boles to reduce red tape and allow a range of extensions without the need for planning approval. These have been watered down in concessions made to critics and are in a state of flux.
In advising family landowners over the years, I have been involved in the planning process and seen at first hand the way the system works (or does not work), its cost and its complexity. I have marvelled at the quality of those who advise in this area, and at those who create schemes sensitive in the knowledge that, if implemented, they will have a permanent effect on the countryside.
At the same time, in the same way that zebra crossings produce a completely different response depending on whether I am using one as a pedestrian or as a driver, I am not immune to having views about proposals for development which will affect my local community. Accordingly, when the coalition proposed changes aimed at giving more local involvement to community plans, I gave them a guarded but warm welcome.
It is the fate of many political initiatives that good ideas are hijacked such that the original proposal loses it way. Are we really going to allow localism to mean that members of the community can take away the property rights of those who own land without compensating that landowner for the loss in value, and for the loss of freedom to deal with the asset? To what extent can a local community, being temperamentally opposed to change, be allowed to nullify a project which is in the undoubted national interest?
Sometimes it is easy to forget that earlier generations also had to face the prospect of putting up with undesirable and unsightly change, with little chance of objecting. Can you imagine the outcry there would be if we looked at our countryside without the railway system that exploded through the 19th century, and somebody then suggested that we build railways? Was there an outcry when all those electricity pylons were built in the 20th century? We are allowed much more expression in objecting to developments nowadays when we talk about airports or wind farms, to name but two. Now we look at disused railway lines as, in some cases, romantic relics of a bygone age.
We are lucky that many of our large landowners take such care to protect the communities in which they have lived for several hundred years, but the tension is that, as the country needs more housing, those landowners are the holders of the land for development. They may have buildings which have become so outdated and environmentally inefficient they either have to be demolished and new development undertaken, or have to be refurbished at considerable cost.
Also at the heart of the planning system has been an enormous frustration with the complexity of rules controlled by officers of local government who are pilloried from all sides. One day they are pilloried for being obstructive to a perfectly sensible development proposal (as the proponent sees it) and the next day they are attacked by individuals and groups for not operating a dead hand on any form of contentious development. There is no doubt that we are largely comfortable when there is no change, but in our modern society that is not an option. We cannot make people continue to live in properties which were not built to 21st-century standards without allowing them to make some changes, internally at least.
The problem at its core is that governments tinker at the margins and there is no debate (which would be passionate, and probably ill-informed as well) about the attention to be accorded to personal property rights, as compared with community rights. The question then is: what do we mean by community rights, and who exercises them?
An attempt to foster local interest at broadly a non-political level is a worthwhile experiment, but most people do not care until they are affected, and then they will be influenced by passion rather than balanced judgement. It is only, after all, a small minority of schemes that are not forgotten once they have been completed and have started to blend into the landscape.
One other issue faces us which affects our thinking about development, and that is the age factor. It is a generalisation that those over 60 are more innately conservative than those who are younger. As our population ages, and those retiring have more time on their hands to worry about and campaign against change, is there to be an automatic veto on balanced development proposals which will make our countryside easier to live in for the next generation? These are all difficult questions; I can supply, alas, no answers.