Lord Falconer's next fiasco

tliouk office at tlio.demon.co.uk
Thu May 16 00:50:33 BST 2002

Lord Falconer's next fiasco 
The government's proposed relaxation of planning controls will spell 
environmental disaster 
Ros Coward 
The Guardian 
Wednesday May 8, 2002
Ref: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4409069,00.html

Anyone under the illusion that the British countryside is in safe 
hands had better think again, and fast. The developers are on the 
offensive, claiming they need to build on more greenfield sites. The 
government has bowed to the pressure and is proposing an ill-thought-
out reform of planning controls, which would guarantee that the south-
east would be concreted over. Behind these so-called reforms is the 
architect of another fiasco, Lord Falconer of the Dome. He is 
currently appearing before a House of Commons select committee, 
protesting that of course the government wants sustainability. Look, 
he says, the green paper mentions it on the first page. That is 
practically the only mention - but "business" appears 50 times. 
The government is going along with a great land grab, with 
housebuilders the most strident in the lobby. Recently there has been 
a rash of developer-led reports about housing crises, including last 
week's Housebuilder Federation report and the Rowntree report, Land 
for Housing. Both demand more greenfield sites. The developers are 
lobbying a receptive Downing Street, passing themselves off as 
philanthropic providers of homes for key sector workers. They say we 
need 5 million extra homes in the south-east. What they really want 
is more executive homes on greenfield sites. 
The bottom line is that the developers refuse to dip into their 
considerable reserves of brown and greenfield land. They are holding 
on to them for speculation. It is shocking how gullible the press and 
politicians are, not noticing blatant financial interest or 
challenging the regional imbalances behind this pressure in the south-
east. The Rowntree report was taken at face value, although drawn up 
by estate agents, developers and housing associations. Rowntree 
itself is pushing to build its experimental town, New Osbaldwick, on 
a greenfield site. 
The land grab is a concerted lobby, with housebuilders joined by the 
promoters of major infrastructure projects. Aviation kicked off with 
Terminal 5, and almost weekly reports peddle the need for further 
runways in the south-east. Cliffe, a site of immense wildlife 
importance in north Kent, was the most scandalous suggestion but was 
probably softening up opinion for more "acceptable" venues. There has 
been no debate about whether aviation should grow at all. Other 
serious land grabs are coming from road and rail projects and massive 
port plans such as Southampton's Dibden Bay. 
Development pressures for greenfield sites are constant in this 
crowded isle, but now there is a real danger they'll get their way. 
Unusually, the Treasury initiated this planning "reform", having 
swallowed the line that planning controls restrain productivity and 
that major infrastructure projects are vital for productivity. It's 
an old argument, based on the US. Its relevance here is questionable. 
In a small country it would be environmentally catastrophic. 
Undoubtedly the planning system is slow and arcane, so perhaps the 
government thought the business community's frustrations spoke for 
everyone. But an over whelming 40,000 responses to the consultation 
say otherwise. There is outrage at dismantling fundamental civil 
rights which leaves nothing in the way of developer greed. Planning 
will be passed to regional bodies, so housing numbers for, say, 
Oxford would be decided by an unelected body in Guildford. 
Parliament will take over decisions on major infrastructure 
decisions. Falconer insists these always were parliamentary 
decisions. Does he not understand the difference between a decision 
at the end of a democratic consultative process and a decision taken 
by a whipped parliamentary group without reference to those affected? 
Proposals attempting to tackle the obscurantism of planning suggest 
cutting out whole layers of local democracy. Removing requirements 
for councils to make detailed land-use maps would provide swaths 
of "white" land (without specific designation) - fair game for 
developers. The proposal for "business zones", exempt from planning 
controls, means that Cambridge, an obvious target for such a zone, 
could kiss goodbye to its identity as a historic city. 
The plans are all the more indefensible because this government 
introduced changes in the system that still have to work their way 
through. They set the target of a maximum use of 40% of greenfield 
sites and pushed for using brownfield sites first. Despite this, 50% 
of new development nationally is still on greenfield sites. That, 
according to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, is 
roughly equivalent to losing an area the size of Greater London every 
The Urban Task Force is still trying to promote urban regeneration 
and efficient land use. Real joined-up thinking would mean a 
concerted attempt to take the heat off the south-east. Instead, the 
government is accommodating the developers' land greed. Insiders say 
Falconer wants to make a lasting name with one big reform. If this 
goes ahead, Falconer will be like Dr Beeching: synonymous with 
environmental disaster. 
comment at guardian.co.uk 

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