Shine A Light

What a carve up! England's new planning regime

Developers are rubbing their hands in glee. Soon, the presumed decision on any planning application in England will be "yes". What does the government have to gain from pushing through these reforms, unpopular with their own voters and the wider public?

Oliver Huitson
23 September 2011

In just the latest round of overt cronyism, English planning laws are to be inverted. From now on, the presumed decision on any planning application will be “yes”. The Conservative-led Coalition is now attempting to hand over a large chunk of England’s land to developers. Facing opposition from both left and right, lacking in popular mandate, absent from any manifesto and reeking of impropriety, it’s the sort of policy that has come to define this government.


Up for grabs? Image: Historical Association

The plans will open up everything except green belt, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. For everywhere else, “the default answer to development will be yes”, says George Osborne in the consultation document. 

The onus will now be on local authorities to show that the downsides of the proposed development would “significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”. If local authority plans are absent or out of date, as may be the case in 95% of them, permission is now to be granted “by default”. In these cases developers can build “what they like, where they like and when they like”, in the words of John Howells, parliamentary secretary to Greg Clark, the Conservative minister for decentralisation and planning.

As for the supposed empowerment of the public, Neighbourhood Development Orders purportedly enable local people to drive development but if the local authority grants permission (“by default”?) the community will have no power to block or appeal the decision. Except, that is, in those rare instances where the community can show the proposed site to be of “particular local significance”. The public will be as impotent as the local authorities. In both instances there is a glaring asymmetry of control: communities and local authorities alike will be able to push forward development but are as good as powerless to stop it. 

The Conservatives’ justification for all this rests on two basic arguments. The first of which, as Eric Pickles claims in the Guardian, is that the move “will help to build the new homes that Britain needs”. It is sad to see that Pickles is able to cite support from both Shelter and Homeless Link on this issue. Sad because these proposals will do little to ease the housing problem.

Under current laws, 80% of proposals are approved. 330,000 houses are already signed off waiting to be built. More than 700,000 houses lie empty. The new plans remove the need to build on brownfield sites first before greenfield sites. Yet it is estimated that brownfield sites alone have capacity for a further three million new homes.

Tight lending criteria, economic gloom and a youth struggling with unemployment rates and purchasing power are far more restrictive than planning laws. Like the Tories’ entire economic programme the proposed new planning regime fails to address the weakness of demand. Instead we see destructive supply-side policies targeting non-existent problems and turning England into a developer’s sandpit in the process. 

The government’s second explanation for effectively abolishing England’s planning laws is that they are “a brake on growth”. A quick glance at either Spain or Ireland suggests otherwise – strong economies need sensible and robust planning controls that utilise space efficiently. We have no shortage of sites or office space, and reflating the property bubble is hardly a “sustainable” route to growth. Again, it is not supply that’s the problem, it’s demand.

Back in November, Eric Pickles, Communities Secretary, laid out plans to reform England’s planning system, to enable “more people-planning and less politician-planning… so there is more direct democracy and less bureaucracy… the building blocks of the Big Society”. But what they are now trying to sneak through parliament is little more than a free for all for developers; public power is virtually non-existent. Published on July 25th, as the parliamentary recess began, the consultation will close in October; opportunities for scrutiny will be minimal.

The National Trust have mobilised strongly against the plans, asking nearly four million members to resist what they say will lead to “unchecked and damaging development in the undesignated countryside”. Numerous environmental groups also oppose the plans, and 38 Degrees have just launched a petition, “Save our Countryside”.

Tory minister Bob Neill reportedly described the opposition as a "carefully choreographed smear campaign by left-wingers”. But it’s an odd bunch of left-wingers that counts the Daily Telegraph amongst its most vocal members. The paper has even launched its own “Hands off our land” campaign to defeat the proposals. What sort of government finds itself so far to the right that the Telegraph becomes left wing? The Lib Dems may want to give the issue some thought.

Why is the government pushing through plans so lacking in coherence and so widely opposed? As the Telegraph recently reported, property developers have donated more than £3m to the Conservatives over the last 3 years.

“Developers are also paying thousands of pounds for access to senior Tories through the Conservative Property Forum, a club of elite donors which sets up “breakfast meetings” to discuss planning and property issues.”

The party has insisted there is “absolutely no link between donations to the Conservative party and Conservative planning policy”. But in the world of ‘rational economic agents’ maximising their income, the theoretical foundation of laissez-faire Conservative doctrine, it’s not difficult to imagine what rational purpose these donations might serve.

A leaked email has also now emerged discussing minister Greg Clark’s “delight” with the British Property Federation for their lobbying efforts. The paper also reports that senior members of the housebuilding industry helped draft the consultation document. On the back of substantial donations, a Conservative minister is working hand in hand with developers to force through highly unpopular legislation. 

Property magnate David Rowland was appointed a Conservative party treasurer last year after donating almost £3 million of his estimated £730 million fortune to the party’s election fighting fund. Rowland, who had been 40 years a tax exile, claimed: “I made the donation as a result of my passionate concern for liberty and the economic future of Britain.” He had to step down within months due allegations about his business dealings and private life.

With the NHS bill now having passed through the Commons, it’s hard not to feel a depressing sense of déjà vu. Public sentiment, democratic mandate and environmental conservation are clearly of little value to the Coalition. For the right money, everything is up for grabs.

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