Planning reforms risk harming countryside, Government own watchdogs warn

Tony Gosling tony at
Wed Oct 26 18:22:21 BST 2011

Hands Off Our Land: environmental watchdogs warn 
of 'unintended consequences' of planning reforms
Controversial planning reforms risk harming the 
countryside, the Government's own environmental watchdogs have warned.
Natural England, which is responsible for 
protecting habitats and wild species, said the 
proposals failed to attach enough value to 
natural landscapes, risking development on 
countryside that should be protected for the sake 
of its beauty, heritage and wildlife  - By Richard Gray
7:15AM BST 23 Oct 2011
The Environment Agency and Natural England, which 
have until now remained silent on the changes to 
the planning system, have both raised concerns 
over the Coalition's proposals to make development easier.
As government bodies, both organisations usually 
avoid criticising government policy, but they 
have warned that the key part of the draft 
National Planning Policy Framework – a new 
presumption in favour of development – could have "unintended consequences".
The proposed changes, which reduce the planning 
regulations from more than 1,000 pages to just 
52, have sparked intense opposition from campaign 
groups, led by the National Trust, who fear it 
will lead to widespread development in the countryside.
Ministers insist the reforms, which would change 
the current system so that proposed developments 
would be given automatic approval if they are 
deemed to be "sustainable", are essential to 
provide new housing and to drive economic growth.
Opponents, however, say the new rules tip the 
balance too much in favour of housing developers 
and risk sacrificing parts of the countryside for 
economic reasons, with even the green belt's protection facing dilution.
The dispute descended into an ugly war of words 
between ministers and he National Trust, along 
with the Royal Society for the Protection of 
Birds and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
The warnings from the Environment Agency and 
Natural England will be seized on by opponents 
and come in the formal responses submitted by 
both agencies to the official consultation on the reforms.
Natural England, which is responsible for 
protecting habitats and wild species, said the 
proposals failed to attach enough value to 
natural landscapes, risking development on 
countryside that should be protected for the sake 
of its beauty, heritage and wildlife.
It warned that decisions could "collectively lead 
to a degraded environment, which can undermine 
longer term economic growth and wellbeing".
It said: "We consider that there is a risk that 
the wording of the presumption in favour of 
sustainable development could have unintended 
consequences of environmentally damaging development."
The organisation also called for the draft NPPF 
to offer protection to Sites of Special 
Scientific Interest, which are currently 
protected in the current planning laws but not in the NPPF.
The Environment Agency issued a separate warning 
about the removal of policies that currently 
encourage development on brownfield sites ahead of greenfield sites.
The Environment Agency said: "We believe that 
there is a risk that the replacement of the 
brownfield first policy with 'land of lesser 
environmental or amenity value' could reduce the 
amount of contaminated land that is restored."
It also raised concerns over an aspect of the 
plan that would see developments being 
automatically approved if councils did not have 
up-to-date local development plans in place for their area.
Fewer than 30% of local authorities currently 
have such plans and lawyers have warned that even 
those may be considered out of date once the new 
framework comes into force, allowing developers 
the chance to push through undesirable developments.
The Environment agency said: "We are concerned 
that an unintended consequence of applying the 
presumption in favour of sustainable development 
could be that, until Local Plans are updated and 
in place, some developments could be approved 
that have a negative impact on the natural environment."
Ministers are currently considering more than 
10,000 responses to the consultation on the 
proposals are expected to make a number of 
changes to the document before it is due to come 
into force next year. But they have refused so 
far to back down on the most contentious element 
– the presumption in favour of development.
Greg Clark, minister for planning and 
decentralisation, has said the government will 
ensure there are "appropriate transitional 
arrangements" in place before the new framework comes into force.
He added that the government would also publish 
the final version of the NPPF well before it is 
due to come into force in April next year.
Caroline Flint, Labour's shadow communities 
secretary, has called for MPs to be given a vote 
on the NPPF in Parliament before it comes into force.
The National Trust is now calling for a second 
consultation because of the scale of concerns raised.
A spokesman for the National Trust said: "We will 
be keeping a very close eye on what comes out 
through the government's process and looking carefully at the end result.
"We are very keen for a second stage of 
consultation but we have yet to hear anything to raise our hopes."
A spokesman for the Department for Communities 
and Local Government said: "We are now carefully 
and thoroughly considering all the responses to 
the consultation, and we will publish the final document in due course." 

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Fear not therefore: for there is nothing covered 
that shall not be revealed; and nothing hid that 
shall not be made known. What I tell you in 
darkness, that speak ye in the light and what ye 
hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. Matthew 10:26-27  
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