UK Politics

National Trust: Planning reforms are no magic bullet

Overhauling planning rules is "no magic bullet" to boost economic growth, the head of the National Trust has said.

Sir Simon Jenkins said there was "no evidence" that relaxing rules on development would help the economy.

He told MPs examining controversial government planning changes there was a "massive" amount of brownfield land already available for building on.

Ministers say the rules must prioritise sustainable development to ensure more homes are built and jobs created.

The communities and local government committee questioned developers, council representatives and the National Trust about the draft national planning policy framework in England, which has pitted ministers against the trust and other conservation groups.

The National Trust says the plans threaten to put economic gain ahead of everything else, including green spaces and communities, and it has received 209,879 signatures from those opposed to the plans.

'Not proven'

Sir Simon Jenkins, the body's chairman, told MPs that the plan was "unbalanced" and effectively gave a "green light" to any kind of development, including in rural areas.

While planning needed to be simplified and decentralised, he said he remained unconvinced by the argument that radical change was justified by the need to secure stronger growth.

"The link between the availability of land with planning permission attached and either the state of the housing market or economic growth in general is simply not proven," he said.

"I do not regard there is some magic bullet in the planning system that aids economic growth anywhere."

Sir Simon, a former editor of the Times, said there was "no shortage" of land available for development across many parts of England and suggested relaxing the rules would not necessarily result in more homes being built as many plots would simply be bought and placed in "land banks" by developers.

The trust was "up against some very powerful and rich people" in its battle over the planning system, he added, suggesting that the lobbying taking place over the issue was the most intense he had encountered.

Amid a row over the issue, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to the National Trust last month saying that ministers "fully recognised" the need for a balance between economic, social and environmental factors.

He said "sustainable development" would be defined to include a reference to the environmental and social impact of building.

'Core principles'

The government wants to simplify Britain's complex planning system, replacing more than 1,000 pages of regulations with 52 pages. It says this is necessary to kick-start house building, which is at levels last seen in the 1920s.

Proposals contain a "presumption in favour of sustainable development" - which critics have interpreted as giving the green light to developers.

Among its "core principles", the draft planning framework says that those making decisions about planning applications "should assume that the default answer to development proposals is 'yes' except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out".

Chancellor George Osborne and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said last month that sticking with the "complicated" current system "puts at risk young people's future prosperity and quality of life" and said they were determined "to win this battle".

Housebuilders and housing associations have said urgent action is needed to address the "chronic under-supply of homes".

John Slaughter, from the Home Builders Federation, told MPs that "the planning system has not delivered sufficient land for housing development because otherwise we would not have the housing crisis that we do".

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