A Brave New Voluntary World, Shaun Spiers CPRE

Shaun Spiers of CPRETranscript of: ‘A brave new voluntary world’ presented by Shaun Spiers, CPRE

I will talk about the Government’s proposed planning reforms, then a little about CPRE’s engagement with AONBs.

I make no apology for dwelling on planning, because the Government is currently engaged in the biggest shake-up of planning policy since the modern planning system was introduced in 1947.

From a historical perspective, this shake-up is probably long overdue. The nationalisation of development rights was part of the post-war settlement, along with the nationalisation of health provision and of some heavy industries. In a sense, it is amazing that it has survived so long. Even in the context of the post-war consensus on constraining free markets and giving a larger role to the state, the introduction of the planning system was controversial and distinctly un-Tory.

The Cabinet discussed the subject towards the end of the war, when Churchill made what is, as far as I know, his only recorded contribution to planning theory. ‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘All this stuff about planning and compensation and betterment. Broad vistas and all that. But give to me the eighteenth-century alley, where footpads lurk, and the harlot plies her trade, and none of this new fangled planning doctrine.’

The planning system survived such scepticism, and even more surprisingly it broadly survived assaults by a succession of free market ideologues in the governments since 1979.

It did so because it worked. (It certainly worked for Churchill, protecting his views from Chartwell of the Weald of Kent and the North Downs.) I recently read Francis Pryor’s massive book, The Making of the British Landscape, and after several millennia and several hundred pages came across this passage:

‘Even though nearly everyone lives or works in a town or city, somehow Britain has managed to retain its uncluttered rural areas. We take these things for granted, but I consider them a huge achievement. I never thought I would be singing the praises of unassuming bureaucrats in town halls up and down the country, but it is almost entirely down to planning. Town and country planning … is now the single most important factor affecting the look of Britain. And we meddle with it at our peril!’

The Government’s reforms go far beyond meddling. The title I have been given for my talk, ‘a brave new voluntary world’, refers I think to the narrative coming from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the run up to the election and in the Coalition’s first year. This did indeed suggest that a brave new world of local and voluntary decision-making on land use was coming.

Planning, it was argued, had become too complex and too top-down. It had become a battlefield. Government, particularly regional government, sought to impose developments on local communities, who consequently resisted them. Too much energy was expended arguing about targets, particularly housing numbers, and too little got built.

The new government would start again. It would simplify planning guidance to make it easier for people to get involved. Individuals and voluntary groups would want to get involved because they, not some remote council or regional assembly would be making the decisions. There was even serious talk of ‘rebalancing’ the planning system so that it was not so weighted towards the interests of developers.

Trusted with power, local communities would do the right thing and agree to appropriate levels of new development. There would be less aggro and more development.

So far, so good. But this commitment to genuine local control over land use decisions has been under significant attack since the government was elected.

CPRE strongly supports a decentralisation of planning decisions, including to parish council level. Radical localisation is part of our 2026 Vision for the Countryside. But we have always argued that localism needed to take place within a strong national framework, and unfortunately national guidance or targets of any sort are out of fashion. That is why Vince Cable’s ‘red tape challenge’ is consulting on the possible abolition of virtually all environmental legislation, including the National Parks Act and the CROW Act. And it is why much of the planning guidance brought in by the last Conservative government, as well as by the Labour Government, notably targets for housing density and brownfield development, is being abolished.

Now, this guidance was introduced in the first place because local authorities in the ‘80s were approving too many sprawling estates of executive homes in open countryside and too many out of town shopping centres. National government felt it had a duty to protect local countryside.

Similarly, the protection of nationally significant landscapes reflects a recognition that they are, in Wordsworth’s words, “a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy” – that the long-term national interest in safeguarding such landscapes may override immediate local interests.

History suggests that without a strong national planning framework, bad developments happen.

But our line is not that you can’t trust local people. It is just a recognition that small, under-resourced planning authorities faced with big, well-resourced developers need to be given a clear framework in which to work, one that takes account of the successes and failures of planning policy over the last 30 years. We think that is preferable to treating the election of the Coalition as Year Zero.

Indeed, our objection is not that the Government is planning to remove targets and sound planning guidance and instead simply leave things to local people. It’s worse than that because targets are being replaced with incentives – bungs for development, cash for sprawl. Local authorities will financially rewarded for building new houses, regardless of their quality or whether they are in the right place, and financially punished if they do not build them. Similar incentives are planned for energy infrastructure such as wind turbines.

It is true that neighbourhood planning will give welcome new powers to communities, notably parish councils. They will have a greater say, for instance, over the design of new housing in their area. But they will not be able to say ‘no’ to development. Neighbourhood planning is a one-way street: a neighbourhood can campaign for more housing than is in the local plan, two supermarkets instead of one, but it can’t say ‘no’.

So, neighbourhood planning is not a ‘NIMBY’s charter’, and nor should it be. But it remains to be seen how much people will want to get involved with the developing local plans when their powers are so circumscribed, and when local authorities may be financially obliged to impose unwanted developments on them.

Finally on the Government’s planning reforms, the way in which the debate is being framed by ministers is deeply worrying, whether it is David Cameron attacking planning officers as ‘enemies of enterprise’ holding Britain back; Eric Pickles saying that our current planning system is the last outpost of Albanian Communism; or Vince Cable only ever talking about planning as something that damages economic growth, never as a tool of environmental and social improvement or, indeed, something that can give certainty to businesses and help them plan.

Worse still, the Chancellor in his Budget not only abolished brownfield housing targets, which we calculate have saved an area of countryside twice the size of Manchester since they were introduced, he launched a rhetorical assault on planning, calling it ‘a chronic obstacle to economic growth’ and requiring ‘all bodies involved in planning to prioritise growth and jobs. We will introduce,’ he said, ‘a new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is “yes”.’

The Budget was followed by a ministerial statement by Greg Clark, the Minister for Decentralisation, reaffirming that ‘the Government’s top priority in reforming the planning system is to promote economic growth and jobs…. When deciding whether to grant planning permission, local authorities should support enterprise and facilitate housing, economic and other forms of sustainable development.’

Where does this leave AONBs? The leaked version of the National Planning Policy Framework that we have seen does not significantly weaken protection of AONBs, except perhaps in terms of mineral extraction. But the wider context is likely to weaken AONB protection. The presumption in favour of sustainable development seems to amount to a presumption in favour of any development; and local authorities looking to the Government for guidance will hear a very clear message of ‘build, build’, build’. Instead of this, the Government should be giving very clear guidance to local authorities to protect landscapes in AONBs.

I want to turn now to how CPRE branches campaign on AONBs; their perception of the threats that they face; and possible scope for collaboration. Because if the future is likely to be very challenging, so is the present.

CPRE’s 43 county branches are independent charities and different branches take a different approach to developments in their area. The first instinct of some is bloody-mindedly to resist all proposed developments in rural areas, which not a bad instinct in a protectionist body, and one that has helped save a lot of countryside.

But CPRE recognises that the countryside will change. We have a growing population; we need new housing, renewable energy and so on. Our approach to development has been remarkably consistent since we were formed in 1926. To quote CPRE’s first Chairman, Lord Crawford: “We have got to have new roads and bridges, new suburbs, new villages and perhaps new towns. Our desire is that they shall be comely, and shall conform to modern requirements without injuring the ancient beauty of the land.”

So, how is the ancient beauty of the land faring in AONBs? In preparation for this speech we contacted CPRE branches to ask them about planning issues in AONBs, and about how they work with AONB Partnerships.

It will not come as a surprise that our survey revealed that AONBs across the country are facing significant development threats – pylons, overhead lines, an incinerator, housing, high speed rail, wind farms, a large retail park, a motorway service station, polytunnels, glass houses, airport expansion and mineral extraction. Nor will it come as a surprise that CPRE branches are involved in opposing these threats.

This, of course, is under the established planning system. We carried out a similar exercise about five years ago, and I am not sure that the threats now are any more or less severe than they were then, though wind farms and pylons are more prevalent now.

But if the planning system cannot safeguard our finest landscapes within AONBs, then protection needs to be strengthened, not weakened as proposed.

Indeed, for all my general gloom about the planning system – CPRE’s default position is that every silver lining has a cloud – the Government’s recent Natural Environment White Paper was is an excellent document which sets out a vision for protecting and restoring the countryside on a large scale, and gives some cause for hope that the ‘brave new voluntary world’ is not just a distant dream.

Perhaps one of the principal reasons for optimism is that it already has deep foundations. There is always scope to do more to protect our finest landscapes, and aspects of the Government’s agenda, such as proposals for Local Nature Partnerships in the Natural Environment White Paper, present new opportunities. But one of the things that has struck me is just how much work is already happening, and how well AONBs and CPRE branches are working together.

During our research on threats to AONBs we asked CPRE branches to tell us how they interacted with their local AONB. Some are represented on AONB Joint Advisory Committees, some have regular meetings with AONB officers, some joined forces to campaign against a planning proposal and some have more informal contact such as the occasional site visit together. Many CPRE branches cited the excellent Management Plans that had been prepared by their AONB, in consultation with groups like CPRE and other interested parties.

A couple of concerns were raised. One branch was concerned that its AONB was not responding to development threats to locally designated land immediately outside its boundaries, despite its potential impact on the AONB. Another branch felt that its AONB was not being active enough in criticising unsuitable developments by the county council, focussing on minimising the impact of development rather than upholding the national policy that AONBs should be subject to the strongest planning protection.

But I am encouraged that many CPRE branches and AONBs are working well together. Voluntary action is already delivering benefits for the landscape and for people. I hope that all AONBs, if you haven’t already done so, will get in touch with your local CPRE branch to see if it would like to work more closely with you. As I mentioned a moment ago, the Natural Environment White Paper may provide us with new opportunities – through Local Nature Partnerships – to work together to improve our countryside.

[Of course, CPRE is one of countless local groups engaged in the issues with you deal. A common theme in all the threats to AONBs highlighted by our research is that they are opposed by a wide range of groups and individuals who would be affected by the proposal.

For example, in Richard Benyon’s Newbury constituency, CPRE Berkshire, the North Wessex Downs AONB, local campaign groups and the MP himself are united in opposition to a proposed new incinerator within the AONB.

In Wiltshire, CPRE Wiltshire, the AONB, the parish council and local people have been united in their concern about the proposal to build 90 houses on a greenfield site within the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs AONB.

In Shropshire, our branch has been working with local groups to oppose pylons and overhead lines alongside the Shropshire Hills AONB.

In Lancashire, CPRE is part of a consortium of organisations opposed to the development of a wind farm in the Forest of Bowland AONB. Each of the 13 turbines would be 415 feet high, taller than the spire of Salisbury Cathedral.

A final example comes from Cornwall, where a development of 15 houses in Trevone village has recently been approved despite objections from CPRE Cornwall, the AONB and many local people.]

Two final things. A number of our branches are campaigning for landscapes within their area to be designated. CPRE Herefordshire, for instance, is supporting an initiative under the Sustainable Communities Act to designate the Black Mountains. CPRE Gloucestershire will keep up the battle to designate the Forest of Dean – which looked likely to lose what little protection it has before the Government changed its mind on selling off the public forest estate. As undesignated landscapes are increasingly likely to be up for grabs, we are likely to see more pressure for new designations.

Second, there there are also many instances of CPRE celebrating the beauty and diversity of the countryside, rather than opposing things. An example is CPRE Gloucestershire’s work, with the Cotswold AONB, to plant new hedgerows where the previous ones had been ripped up. A number of branches also run awards schemes to celebrate what they consider to be good developments in the countryside.

But our volunteers need a planning system which gives as much priority to the natural environment as to economic growth. So it is incumbent on all of us now to be very clear in our message to the Government that, as it reforms the planning system in this country, it maintains the strongest possible protection for designated sites like AONBs and National Parks, but also adequate protection for the wider countryside. We do not want our most beautiful landscapes to become islands under siege in a countryside where, to quote the Chancellor, the default answer to development is ‘yes’.

3 points:

  • the government started out with good intentions for more local control
  • it has allowed too much say for the Treasury and the Department of Business, risking an environmental disaster
  • it’s not too late for the Government to think again, but if it pushes ahead it will look back on the rumpus over the forests with nostalgia.
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One Response to A Brave New Voluntary World, Shaun Spiers CPRE

  1. Peter Samsom says:

    Nice to hear someone speak his mind, no coded messages.

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