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Simon Jenkins: The new planning white paper is a domesday for development

The white paper on planning promises to license untold damage to the British landscape, argues Simon Jenkins.

You might think the British Government had better things to do right now than ‘build a whole new planning system from the ground up.’ Yet this bull, loosed in the china shop last August, is still smashing common sense.

Last month, the Government’s Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, had to abandon one of his wilder proposals on housing. He has yet to abandon the rest.

His most spectacular U-turn was on a plan to cut house building in the North and boost it in the South. His ‘mutant algorithm’ had new housing slashed by a quarter in the North-East, doubling in the Cotswolds and rising in Kensington by a ludicrous 633%. Mr Jenrick had not noticed that this contradicted his Prime Minister’s policy of ‘levelling up’ the North. Now, development and subsidy is to be concentrated on brownfield sites in a chosen 20 Midlands and Northern cities, including Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds and Stoke.

“The concept is a green light for companies to add to their land banks, which at present have a shocking one million unbuilt houses on their books”

Mr Jenrick has not withdrawn his intention almost to end planning permission, which he derides as ‘reactive development management’. He wishes to see England divided up into a Domesday Book of local zones, marked crudely for building renewal and growth or for ‘protection’.

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The first zone, to which the white paper is almost exclusively addressed, would require local planners, ‘in consultation’ with local people, to fix the zones and then withdraw. The Government would be entitled to intervene if it does not like the zones and would require them to be updated every five years. As there would still be top-down housing targets, meeting them would be up to builders, subject only to a ‘design code’ of doubtful enforceability.

The concept is a green light for companies to add to their land banks, which at present have a shocking one million unbuilt houses on their books. I have not read a single comment — from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Local Government Association to the former Supreme Court property expert Lord Carnwath and the CPRE — that does not ridicule the idea.

A consequence is that once land is declared as unprotected it will normally enjoy a ‘presumption in favour’ of permission. Local people and their elected representatives will be powerless. This stripping of local democracy must leave the British — for the time being only the English — alone in the civilised world in their diminished rights over their environment. A solicitor of my acquaintance says it will be ‘paradise day’ for lawyers.

As for the 80% of England’s land area that is still technically rural, we remain in the dark. The white paper is silent on what land qualifies as for ‘protection’. It mentions national parks, green belts (thank goodness), wildlife reserves and AONBs. With present uncertainties, every farmer will want a few houses on spare fields. To see how that looks, go to Sicily.

“The white paper’s copious illustrations include not a single picture of countryside. It looks like a sales brochure for an executive estate.”

The concept of an ordered boundary between town and country has underpinned the British love of the countryside since the 1940s. It was the pre-war planning chaos that fired the original 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. This needs strengthening, not weakening. Already, hoardings, masts, warehouses and ill-sited ‘volume estates’ spring up wherever a developer has won a permit.

We know the character of the English landscape is a human construct, but it is humans acting as regulated custodians of Nature. Open space is not a free market, but a limited and precious resource. We rely on planning to guard its nuances, the fragmentary field, the hedge, the suburban ‘edgeland’, the strip of green along a canal, the beloved valleys that would never rate ‘national beauty’ status.

The white paper’s copious illustrations include not a single picture of countryside. It looks like a sales brochure for an executive estate. To Mr Jenrick, planning is a nimbyish curse on his beloved building industry, not a blessing.

Apart from war, it is hard to think of a more critical moment in the history of the English countryside than now. Brexit is about to shift agriculture towards an open market for food. Farm subsidies are to be for ‘public goods’, as yet undefined, but nowhere including scenic value. The pandemic will increase the flight of money from towns, putting added strain on rural conservation.

Of course, there must be more building and — what the developers want — more certainty. Zoning in itself makes sense. But where, how and for whom these zones operate are questions of local sensitivity and democracy, not Whitehall targets and directives.

For those who care about the countryside, there is only one obvious route. Local people everywhere should exploit the ‘protected’ category, whatever it may mean. They should seek to protect every tree, field, hill and blade of grass and barricade it from Mr Jenrick and his builders. Then they can start arguing.

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