Guarded welcome for planning reforms

Environmentalists are cautiously welcoming the publication of the coalition's controversial planning reforms.

Their tentative comments about the slimmed-down planning guidance, which reduces 1,300 pages of documents to 50, came as the government maintained its controversial 'presumption in favour of sustainable development'.

Campaigners appeared satisfied that ministers had watered down the impact of the changes, which many had feared would give developers the upper hand against those preferring to protect Britain's countryside.

Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said he had been "reassured" by planning minister Greg Clark.

"While recognising the scale of the housing crisis, we remain very concerned to ensure that the Planning Framework does not place undue emphasis on short-term economic growth at the expense of other important long term, public interest objectives of planning, including the protection and enhancement of the environment," he said.

The final National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) document encourages the use of brownfield land, protects the green belt and enshrines the 'local plan' as the keystone of the planning system, the Department for Communities and Local Government said.

The CBI, which represents the interests of Britain's businesses, appeared delighted by the move. But it insisted that the changes did not represent "an invitation to concrete over Britain".

"Future generations will be thankful that the government has held its nerve on this," director-general John Cridland commented.

"Having a presumption in favour of sustainable development gets the balance right between supporting jobs and growth, and serving the interests of the environment and society."

Prime minister David Cameron had even written an article in the spring edition of the Countryside Alliance (CA) magazine in a bid to persuade environmentalists that the government is on their side.

"Our beautiful British landscape has always been, and will always be, a national treasure which should be loved, enjoyed and protected for everyone’s benefit," he wrote.

The CA's executive chairman, Barney White-Spunner, said the coalition's initial national planning policy framework had unnecessarily "polarised the debate" between achieving economic growth and protecting the countryside.

He added: "At a time when rural pubs, shops and schools are closing at a worrying rate, a more simple but rigorous set of planning regulations could go a long way to reviving the struggling rural economy."

Groups like Friends of the Earth (FoE) have warned that the default position of saying 'yes' to development is a short-term solution to help boost economic recovery which will ultimately prove a "recipe for disaster".

"Planning needs to deliver the right type of development in the right place, while protecting and enhancing the environment on which we depend," FoE's Naomi Ludhe-Thompson said.

Labour is warning that the changes could cause "widespread chaos", however, as many developments end up being held up by court decisions on interpreting what shadow planning minister Roberta Blackman-Woods called "this radically new and untested approach".

Shadow communities and local government secretary Hilary Benn told MPs: "It is so important to get the balance right… it is therefore extraordinary that the government managed to make such a mess of the process which did nothing to inspire confidence."