Sinister noises are emerging from unlikely quarters. The Tory leader, David Cameron, has been echoing comments by the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, to the effect that parts of previously protected southern England may have to be developed for housing. This ominously coincides with the Kate Barker-ist strand of thinking in the Treasury. Prepare for a bulldozer invasion. Can you hear the chainsaws being revved? An army of Polish bricklayers is straining at the leash. The tide of development that has, until now, been channelled by the planning system threatens to become a tsunami.
Unlike Mr Osborne, we do not believe the planning system is broken beyond repair. There are, however, ways in which it is failing to deliver the result we would like. Manifestly, our towns, villages and countryside are not generally being enhanced by the new houses being added to them. This is in part because of the negative spirit with which planners operate. Too often, their power resides in saying no. They keep their creativity under a bushel. It is not their fault that they so often appear to the outside world to be crabbed, unimaginative petty tyrants, who seem to be remarkably inventive in frustrating the intentions of applicants, yet distinctly laggard in putting forward their own constructive proposals. This is the nature of the planning system. It encourages developers totry it on. They continually push at the boundaries of the constraints, until they find the point of least resistance. It is the job of planning officers to keep up the barricades.
We believe that planning should be a more proactive process. Localism is the new buzzword?let’s see it in action. Some villages have already drawn up excellent village plans. These have been based on comprehensive consultation. They represent the considered views of the community about how they want their surroundings to develop. The best contain detailed observations on the architectural character of the locality. These are invaluable for people wishing to build in the village. One reason that development proposals are so passionately opposed is the fear that new houses will not fit in. Village plans can help would-be developers follow the local vernacular. Ideally, this should not only be a matter of good materials and correct detailing.
The Prince of Wales has shown how design guides can incorporate other principles?about the mixture of types of housing, about road
layouts and parking provision, about workshops and public space. About
a fifth of villages are thought to have their own plans. Advice and modest funding should be made available to the parish councils who have yet to undertake one.
Britain is a small island, with an intricate geology. Landscape and settlements change every few miles. Planning is best done as locally as possible. But there is also a role for the county. That is why we included a demand for more county plans in our Manifesto for the Countryside, launched on August 31. As a nation, we respond to counties. We recognise them, we identify with them. Mr Prescott’s regional assemblies are abrogating an increasing number of planning powers. But nobody has an affinity with regions. They are too cumbersome and remote. The counties have their own strong identities.
But the county-structure plans, which used to incorporate planning wisdom on future development, no longer have a statutory role. We believe that there should be a new form of county plan, one that incorporates and distils village and other local plans. They should become the basis of county-wide design guides: a positive statement about the future of the built environment rather than a series of prohibitions.
Counties still have planning departments, but their powers have been restricted to matters concerning highways, waste and minerals. Their teams of specialist architects and conservation officers have been broken up. But where counties had the critical mass sufficient to maintain a body of knowledgeable architects, districts have struggled to maintain the tradition.
We do not wish to detract from the admirable work done in west Dorset, the Cotswolds and the Weald of Kent, but these well-resourced districts are the exception. Elsewhere, conservation officers are often young (because youth is cheap) and poorly trained. As the pressure to build more houses in southern England becomes ever more intense, Country Life demands that the quality of oversight is improved. This should be done by reviving the role of the county. County plans are the starting point.