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News Review - News Reviews from 2011

Countryside under threat

Is the countryside under threat? (Oct 2011)

by Mark Iddon

 

Is the countryside under threat from developers and the government with the draft National Planning Policy Framework document?



‘The Government is to hand thousands of acres of land to developers to build homes,’ stated The Sunday Times this weekend (October 2nd 2011), as the Prime Minister unveiled plans for 100,000 new houses to both stimulate the construction industry and address the housing issue of several decades of under provision. It is alleged that property developers who have made donations to the Conservative Party will benefit from the distribution of government owned land for the purposes of housing development.



This news comes amidst concern over Greg Clarke’s (Planning Minister) introduction of a new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which reduces over a 1000 pages of planning legislation down to 52 pages. The NPPF is currently available for viewing as draft for consultation until October 2011, and is anticipated to be approved as legislation in April 2012. Although it has been suggested by some to be flawed and a developer’s charter, planning officials have been advised to work as if it is effective immediately in an attempt to revive the ailing construction industry.



Organisations such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), the National Trust (NT) along with many other environmental groups are up in arms over what they see as a betrayal of the Conservative Party who had been traditionally allied with wealthy land owners and rural communities. It was the CPRE who were the advocates and proponents of the original 1947 Planning Act, which was introduced to curb the development of the post war building programme where the ‘Homes For Heroes’ was thought to bring about urban sprawl.



Construction in the countrysideIn order to investigate if the countryside is now under threat from development, it is useful to explore some of the myths and facts that have surrounded the housing debate for many years.

 

Successive Labour and Conservative governments, over the last 50 years, have recognised the shortfall in housing production. A need for new housing occurs as a result of increased population, immigration, changing home life situations (separation / second family etc) along with houses required to replace the existing stock.  Many houses built to accommodate workers during the industrial revolution were built in response to immediate needs of the time and may not have expected to have lasted over a hundred years.



Figures vary on the quantity of new homes required each year to meet our society’s housing need from 240,000 target of the Government in February 2008, to the 250 New Town’s Club / Audacity who suggested that we need 500,000 per year for 10 years back in 2006.



House building fell to its lowest ever since the 1920’s under the last Government at 185,000 in 2008-2009 and so far only 73,000 have been constructed this year. It is clear that the 100,000 new homes cited by the Prime Minister is not really the ambitious building programme it is purported to be. Indeed David Cameron has stated that there will be no compromise on the Greenbelt or areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty but will be made up of brownfield site of former barracks, schools and office developments. The shortage of housing in recent years, even before the banking crisis of 2008, has lead to many people staying at home with their parents and so the average age at which a people get their first mortgage is now 37 years, often with parental assistance for the large deposits required of mortgage lenders. It is telling of the housing shortage that despite the economic crisis and uncertainty, although house prices have dropped slightly, the fall in value is not in proportion with the severity of economic stagnation that we are currently experiencing.

 

Greenbelt land is designated as to be protected against development and is distinct from the ‘open countryside’ and ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. Greenbelt does not relate to the quality of land and may just be unused shrub land or even a former scrapyard in the instance of Dale Farm. Greenbelt is not an absolute fixed entity but has actually increased over recent years. The Dale Farm issue goes some way to show that it is the upholding of the rule of law and refusal to compromise that takes precedent over needs of society and human sensibilities to provide places to live.


Contsruction in the countryside?Organisations such as the CPRE ,the NT, Friends of the Earth (FOE) and The Woodland Trust (WT) frequently exaggerate the extent of development using fear and alarm to warn of the effects of urban sprawl but actually only around 10-15% of the UK land mass is urbanised.

 

It would be possible to double the built up areas and still have plenty of countryside for us all to enjoy. The expansion of the built up area would have the potential to allow more space for gardens and parks in the city, more space between neighbours and roads. Also, if we spread out the roads need not be so congested and we could get where we are going faster and spend our lives in more productive or creative pursuits rather than in a traffic jam.



Modern farming methods allow for more efficient agricultural production so that more food can be produced from less land than was allowed for farmland in the post war era. Indeed many farmers own land where it is not cost effective for agricultural use and the land is not of great value because it is presently not developable. This land could be used for housing but there is great opposition from those that would protect the countryside.



It is often presumed that Housebuilders prefer green sites because they are cheaper to develop and attract higher prices. Indeed, with a Greenfield site there is no demolition, reduced risk of contaminants in the ground and may require reduced foundation depth if it is undisturbed ground. However the above cost may be negated by the additional infrastructure costs in constructing new roads with drainage, utilities, technology / communication spurs and street lamps etc. but, also the additional cost refuse and postal service incurrence’s. Houses may attract higher prices but that is because they are more desirable which adds further to the case the CPRE, NT, and others just don’t want to share the countryside with ordinary people.



The NPPF proposal announced by Greg Clarke, as his own were also criticised as it came to light that the framework was drawn up by people with vested interests in the construction industry such as Gary Porter (Housing Company), John Rhodes (Planning Consultancy), Peter Andrew (Taylor Wimpey) and along with the token environmentalist Simon Marsh for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).



Planning legislation over recent years has required applicants to justify the need for consent with a statement of why a proposal will be of minimal impact with regard to environmental issues with the submission af a design and access stamen to accompany all commercial planning applications.
The new NPPF states that there should be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ in assessing the merits of a planning application. Nathalie Liven (QC) for the RSPB has stated that there is no real definition as to what is meant by sustainable development and that will leave scope for ‘almost endless (legal) arguments’. A widely held interpretation of ‘sustainable development is ‘that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.



I would suggest that the term ‘sustainable development’ is loaded in terms of the precautionary principle against development unless it can be proved that no harm will be done to the environment. There is an inherent notion that the protection and preservation of wildlife and insects is observed over and above the needs of human society.



The reduction in quantity of legislation in development control (restrictions) is a good thing but it is replaced by a more ambiguous wording that further enshrines the protection of nature in favour of development serving the needs of society whether for habitat, commerce or industry.



Planning legislation, both in the existing and proposed formats, is elitist and contemptuous of ordinary people and their aspirations to shape their environment for a better life. The new NPPF may be contentious to those who are reluctant for change and may allow for some development to take place. With regard to addressing the housing crisis, kick starting the economy, resuscitating the construction industry or allowing people to develop their own land / property as they see fit, the NPPF is a step in the wrong direction that could become law next April unless a coherent case is made for freedom develop according to the needs of society and to provide affordable housing for all.

 
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