UK Politics

Rewrite 'yes to development' planning change, say MPs

  • 21 December 2011
  • From the section UK Politics
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Campaigners fear government planning reforms put the countryside at risk

MPs are calling on ministers to rewrite a key part of its controversial changes to planning rules in England, removing the default "yes" to development.

Ministers say a simplified planning system is needed to boost growth and encourage sustainable development.

But the Commons communities committee said in a report that the government had slimmed down guidance so much it was now often "unhelpfully vague".

Planning Minister Greg Clark says the MPs support the key changes proposed.

At the heart of the government's planning reforms is a "presumption in favour of sustainable development" which ministers say will boost house building and other economic growth while not harming communities, the environment or the countryside.

Ministers have cut more than 1,000 pages of regulations down to just 52 to overcome planning delays which they claim cost the economy £3bn a year.

But their draft plans provoked angry protests from groups including the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, who are concerned that they could lead to a return to urban sprawl and damaging development.

'Confusion'

Now the Commons communities and local government committee has warned that the changes risk becoming "unbalanced" and favouring "unsustainable development".

The MPs highlight the default "yes" in the reforms that gives the go-ahead to development unless the adverse effects "significantly and demonstrably" outweigh the benefits.

"This carries the risk of the planning system being used to implement poorly planned, unsustainable development", the report says.

"The 'default yes' to development and the phrase 'significantly and demonstrably' should be removed from the text."

The MPs welcome a government commitment to take the consultation process seriously and to reinstate a policy to build on brown field sites first.

But the committee's Labour chairman Clive Betts said changes are needed to the so-called National Planning Policy Framework.

"The way the framework is drafted currently gives the impression that greater emphasis should be given in planning decisions to economic growth," he said.

"This undermines the equally important environmental and social elements of the planning system."

The report also warns there is a danger that, far from speeding up the planning process, in the short term the changes would slow it down by introducing "confusion" where previously there was detailed guidance - and warns that "planning by appeal" could be the outcome.

The MPs said ministers had gone too far in cutting back existing planning guidance.

"Critical wording has been lost and what remains is often unhelpfully vague," the report said.

Ministers should produce "a tighter, clearer document, and should not make a fetish of how many pages it is".

The committee also recommends that once the changes are finalised all planning advice is reviewed - item by item - "lest councils spend valuable time reinventing numerous wheels".

Housing shortage

But John Stewart from the Home Builders' Federation says the planning system must change.

"For the last 20 years environmental concerns have been dominant and as a consequence we have a housing shortage," he told the BBC.

"There are roughly a million homes over the last 20 years that should have been built which haven't been.

"And looking forward we are building about 100,000 homes a year and we should be building well over 250,000, so we have a very serious housing crisis."

Campaigners against the planning overhaul have welcomed the MPs' report.

Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust, said the committee's report provided "irresistible pressure" on ministers to improve their plans.

"Along with nearly 230,000 people who signed our petition against the changes, the select committee has identified the clear changes that need to be made to the draft national planning policy framework so that it delivers a planning system that balances social and environmental needs with those of the economy," she said.

But Minister Mr Clark said the MPs support the key thrust of the government's plans.

"They say that the core principle, the presumption in favour of sustainable development in their words should be a 'golden thread' running through the planning system.

"What they felt is ... there are some ambiguities and have suggested some changes. I have invited them to advise me and so of course I'm going to take their advice very seriously."

The shadow local government secretary Hilary Benn said the report was a "pretty damning criticism" of the government's proposals.

"They are going to have to redraft their plans," he said.

"Local councils have got to be given the opportunity to draw up their new development plans in the light of what the government is proposing and I strongly support what the committee has said about there being a reasonable interval to allow councils to do that so they are not left at the mercy of these new proposals."

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