Jill Kirby: Instead of improving our towns and cities, the Government is choosing to spoil our countryside
We live in a crowded island. Most densely populated of all is the south east of England. Yet the Prime Minister has this week called for new towns to be built in this region, in the tradition of 20th century “garden cities”, these new developments to have have “Victorian swagger and to last like Norman castles.” Instead of prioritising urban regeneration, David Cameron is promising to give housebuilders the land they most crave: greenfield sites where they can build cheaply on a grand scale.
The final version of the Coalition's controversial National Planning Policy Framework is likely to be released alongside today's Budget, signifying the Chancellor's determination that planning policy will be growth-driven and prioritise economic, rather than social or environmental, objectives. Despite months of campaigning, the worst fears of the National Trust, CPRE and other countryside and planning bodies seem likely to be realised. Local resistance to urban sprawl and greenfield development will be dismissed on the grounds that housing needs to be made cheaper by building lots of it, quickly.
As Newsnight's Allegra Stratton warns, the “presumption of sustainable development” is expected to remain in the final guidance and will be used to overrule local objections. This is already pretty clear from the guidance issued by DCLG to enable communities to draw up neighbourhood plans. The government's claim that these plans give new rights to communities is hollow rhetoric, for such plans will only be treated as binding where they support national planning targets and call for more development, not less. So much for localism.
What is particularly depressing about David Cameron's speech this week is its emphasis not just on new-build but new towns. In sharp contrast with the soothing noises he made when the National Trust and Daily Telegraph launched their first attacks on the planning framework, the Prime Minister now claims he is happy to build over the countryside even though he knows this will make him unpopular. But this self-induced unpopularity is sadly unnecessary. A politician more in tune with his grass roots would instead have announced changes to the draft framework to prioritise brownfield development. It's not hard to sketch out an inspiring and, yes, popular announcement the Prime Minister could have made, along these lines, pledging to protect our unique and treasured countryside whilst beautifying our towns and cities.
As the government-led Portas review concluded last December, our town centres are dying – what better way to reinvigorate them by turning empty shopping streets into terraces and squares of town houses? Plenty of scope for “Victorian swagger” there. And instead of building “garden cities” in the midst of the countryside, demanding new transport links and increasing car travel, planning policy should focus on the abandoned wastelands currently linking many inner cities to suburbia. New estates of mixed housing, incorporating parks and green spaces, would not only bring homes closer to jobs, but would also reclaim derelict land.
House-builders have always been reluctant to develop such sites, because of the resources required to adapt, demolish or reclaim. The best (and certainly cheapest) way for government to incentivise such development is to make it quite clear that no further permissions will be granted for greenfield sites. Why, then, is the coalition insistent on doing the opposite? Protecting house-builders' already-healthy profit margins, with open-door planning and taxpayer funded 95% mortgages on new-build may please some Conservative donors, but it will alienate voters up and down the country.
Perhaps this is another instance of the Conservative leadership's strategy to distance itself from its natural supporters, and to offend and annoy middle England. But there is a greater danger here: that Mr Cameron will be seen as an elitist whose own wealth protects him from the impact of a planning free-for-all. His own country home stands in a secluded Cotswold hamlet within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – a designation likely to save him from any significant new housing on his doorstep. He has further protected his own backyard by purchasing (at considerable expense) a plot of land adjoining his home, thus ensuring his own privacy and fine views. A very sensible decision and a good way for home owner to spend his money – but a luxury few home owners are able to afford.
The majority of England's countryside is unprotected by heritage designation. Without strict planning controls, it will soon be plastered with new eco-towns and villages and dispersed developments. Instead of taking the opportunity to beautify our towns and cities, the government is choosing to uglify our countryside.