Comment: Govt need to U-turn on planning

A planning system principally aimed at promoting economic growth is completely unacceptable.

By Craig Bennett

Who'd have thought planning could be so interesting?

A topic often associated with long, dull meetings in dusty town halls has suddenly become headline news. Now, barely a day seems to pass without a story on the coalition's controversial proposals to shake up the planning system splattered across the front page of one newspaper or another.

And organisations representing millions of people across the country are up in arms to say 'hands off our land!' believing these proposals will establish a 'builder's charter' that will spell disaster for communities and the environment.

Of course the government says their plans are eminently sensible and point to the presumption in favour of sustainable development their proposals contain. But what does this actually mean in practice? Astonishingly the government has failed to provide any sort of meaningful definition.

If councils aren't given proper guidance about sustainable development how can they encourage the type of schemes that should be built – and refuse to allow those that shouldn't?

This confusion shouldn't be a major surprise. These planning changes are being driven by ministers who think the planning system is a major impediment to economic growth – and needs to be replaced with one that champions development. And this is what the proposals do.

Earlier this week I met planning minister Greg Clark, along with colleagues from the National Trust, RSPB, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Wildlife Trusts and other organisations.

We told him his plans were of major concern to people across England and that a planning system principally aimed at promoting economic growth was completely unacceptable. He heard our views – but whether he'll change direction remains to be seen.

Friends of the Earth isn't anti-development, or against economic growth. We urgently need to create a strong low-carbon UK economy to ensure we play our part in tackling climate change and to create new green jobs for the future. This means building the new infrastructure to deliver it.

For example, the UK has one of the richest green energy potentials in Europe – we need more wind turbines, solar installations and anaerobic digesters to provide clean and reliable sources of energy.

And we need to solve our housing problems too – and this means new affordable homes, built to high green standards.

Unfortunately, the coalition's planning reforms won't encourage these positive developments – they'll push bad developments, built in the wrong place, which will pump out more climate-changing pollution.

Ironically, some of the most vehement opposition to government plans has come from the Conservative heartlands. People living in the leafy shires don't want their green and pleasant land and quality of life trashed by unnecessary, low-quality development.

And there's unlikely to be much support from the Tory coalition partners either. Traditionally the greenest of the three main parties, Lib Dem supporters must be aghast at their party's association with a free-market planning system that could carve up the countryside.

The government must change tack. We need a planning system that delivers public benefit and social well-being and lays the foundations for a low-carbon prosperous future. We need a framework that encourages new green industries and infrastructure, affordable and decent homes where people need them and protection for Britain's natural environment.

If ministers refuse to listen they may face a nasty shock at the ballot box.

Craig Bennett is policy and campaigns director for Friends of the Earth.

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