Minister denies shift on planning policy proposals

House under construction
Image caption Campaigners say they fear the plans threaten the countryside

The government has denied it is considering a U-turn over controversial proposals to alter the planning system.

Planning minister Greg Clark said the changes in England were "absolutely crucial" but he also agreed to talk to opponents of the proposals.

He said "particular aspects" could be addressed if groups such as the National Trust felt they were unclear.

Shadow communities minister Jack Dromey said he welcomed the government's willingness to talk.

Mr Clark said the government would not back down on its aim to boost house-building and encourage business.

Campaigners say they fear excessive development under the Draft National Planning Policy Framework.

The plan, published in July, streamlines policy that is currently more than 1,000 pages down to just 52 and features a presumption of "sustainable development".

The Department for Communities and Local Government says it intends to transform a system whose "volume and complexity have made planning increasingly inaccessible to all but specialists".

But the National Trust said the plans "failed to protect the everyday places that local communities love" while the Campaign to Protect Rural England said the government needed "to listen and make further improvements or the consequences for the English countryside and the character of our towns and villages will be grave".

'Good for business'

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Media captionGreg Clark defends reforms to the current system

Mr Clark told the BBC it was "absolutely crucial" for the government to simplify planning processes so that homes could be built and to encourage business.

"We're building fewer homes than can accommodate young people that need to be housed, we've got a problem of homelessness, overcrowding, poverty as rents rise.

"For companies expanding or relocating they need a new building and it's crucial that when they're thinking of Britain as a place to relocate they know they won't have to wait years with vast expense and uncertainty."

The housing minister denied there would be any backtracking on the plans, despite his agreement to hold talks.

He said it was "quite right" to consult because of the extent of the changes, and invited opponents to be very specific about any concerns.

"Let's be forensic about this - if there are particular aspects or sentences that you don't think express clearly enough the protections that are there, then let's talk about it.

Labour's Jack Dromey welcomed the government's decision to talk to campaign groups, but said ministers' previous stance showed "how out of touch they are".

"Labour is in favour of sustainable development - but what the Tory-led government are offering is a downgrading of the rules which protect our natural environment."

Mr Clark also criticised the National Trust for using pictures of Los Angeles in its campaign against the plans.

He said that such large-scale urban sprawl was "not going to happen here" and reiterated the government's commitment to protect the green belt, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Councils would also have more responsibility under the new regime - which would mean better planning decisions, argued Mr Clark.

Shaun Spiers, the chief executive of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, rejected Mr Clark's assurances and said the proposals would give too much say to developers.

"What the government is talking about is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, but if you read the National Planning Policy Framework in its draft form, what is clear is that is a presumption in favour of development, and at every point sustainability is undermined.

"What they're really talking about is a policy of 'build, build, build'. This is about economic development. It's about prosperity over people and places."

Peter Nixon, the National Trust's director of conservation, welcomed Mr Clark's invitation to hold talks but also criticised the changes.

He told the Times newspaper that the government had the right "aspirations" but the proposals currently did not allow planning authorities to make decisions in a "balanced way".

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