Winter of discontent after Autumn Statement

It isn’t only the leaves that have been falling this Autumn … George Osbourne has let a few things drop in his recent Autumn Statement.  Some of these issues he only touched on briefly, but in ‘reading between the lines’ they could be of major significance to CPRE and other environmental groups.

Most of his Statement is focussed on the economy and measures “to protect Britain from this debt storm”, which is to be expected.  In fact the Chancellor should be commended for the frank and forthright manner in which he expresses our current financial plight, and the determination he is showing to drag us out of it.  Whether his fiscal measures will work, it’s too early to tell … but what they are is quite clear, including actions that are highly relevant to CPRE.
Perhaps the comment that gives most alarm is the reference to the Habitats Directive in paragraph A.54, hidden away in Section A on the “Supply side reform of the economy”.  George Osbourne states “The Government will ensure that compliance with the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives does not lead to unnecessary costs and delays to development …”, followed by “The Government will review the directives as currently implemented in England by Budget 2012”.  Few words, but a disturbing message !
If the Government were to repeal these regulations (despite the furore this would cause in Britain and Europe) then we would lose one of our key safeguards against development.  We would no longer be able to quote significant impact on SAC and SPA protected sites and their features as reasons for not developing an area.  Schemes such as Lydd Airport extension and a Thames Estuary Airport would be much more likely to receive the go ahead.
This substantial threat to our wildlife sites that are currently afforded the highest levels of protection is then immediately followed by a promise, in A.55, to review the current planning appeals procedures.  Given that the Government are cutting public spending, I cannot see that they will throw more resources at the problem.  Instead, they are most likely to prune back the process, limiting the number and volume of consultations allowed.  And the ‘presumption for development’, which is the most critical issue in the National Planning Policy Framework, will almost certainly be imposed on the appeals procedure.
As a point of planning detail, paragraph A.57 refers to a proposal “to allow existing agricultural buildings to be used for other business purposes such as offices and retail space”.  Is this the ‘thin end of the wedge’ ?  Will we see farmers investing in un-necessary agricultural buildings in anticipation of conversion to business use … or perhaps eventually housing.  I can visualise the site hoardings:  “Executive cow sheds and tractor garages for sale … ready for you to move into … in 3 years !”
Closer to home, the old chestnut of a Third Thames Crossing is given Government commitment, in paragraph A.13.  Three possible locations are being considered, all of them likely to be a disaster for the communities of Dartford and Gravesend.  We need to start gearing ourselves up for the public consultation promised for 2013.
It isn’t all bad news however.  There are some aspects of George Osbourne’s Statement that are more palatable to CPRE.
Perhaps the most positive paragraph in the Statement is A.64, where the Government give a commitment to spend a total of £150 million to bring empty homes back into use, some as affordable housing.  Unfortunately, there is no detail on how this money will be made available and invested, so somewhat difficult to say whether or not this will be a success.  But it could be … and we will follow this development with interest !
Further investment which is of interest to CPRE is mentioned in A.117, with the launch of a £15 million Rural Community Renewable Energy Fund to help communities meet the upfront cost of developing renewable projects.  I’m guessing this will be a low-interest loan scheme rather than a grant mechanism, but again there is a lack of detail at the moment.
However, while this appears to be good news, elsewhere in the Statement there is a hidden threat regarding ‘renewables’ that could cause us some headaches.  In paragraph A.58 the Government declare their intent to “introduce new permitted development rights for non-domestic micro-generation of electricity”, to boost interest in small scale, low carbon energy technologies.  It is unclear as to who will be given these development rights, but following this Autumn Statement, if it is as broad as it appears, we could see a blossoming of such schemes (particularly wind turbines) in the late Spring.
And finally – on the detail – I can confirm there is no mention of a new ‘hub’ airport in the South East.  What George Osbourne did say in his speech to the House of Commons on 29th November was “we will explore all the options for maintaining the UK’s aviation hub status”, and this has been the source of some confusion.  Those who are ‘pro-Boris Island’ (the Thames Estuary Airport) have taken this to be support for their daft scheme.  Thankfully, Theresa Villiers MP and Minister of State for Transport clarified the Government’s intent, by stating that another airport in the South East is un-necessary.  She is of the view that there is plenty of runway capacity available, we just need to use it better.
So ‘there’s never a dull moment’ with our current Coalition Government, and plenty for us to be mindful of in the Autumn Statement.  If you want to read the full, unadulterated document, please click here  ; the Statement can be downloaded from the home page.
However, at 98 pages there’s a lot to take in, so can I recommend a study of Section A: “Supply side reform of the economy” for the juiciest issues.
Further information:
Full transcript of George Osbourne’s speech to the House of Commons on 29th November

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