The government’s proposed planning reforms could amount to “the exact opposite of building back better”, CPRE believes. Downing Street says its proposals are “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War”. Amended planning rules, due to be in place by September, would permit: • Developers to “demolish and rebuild” vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes • A wider range of commercial buildings to be switched to housing without a planning application • Property-owners to build “additional space above their properties”, via a “fast-track approval process” Tom Fyans, policy and campaigns director at CPRE, the countryside charity, was not impressed: “Deregulating planning and cutting up red tape simply won’t deliver better quality places. It’s already far too easy to build poor-quality homes. Our research has shown that three-quarters of large housing developments are mediocre or poor in terms of their design and should not have been granted planning permission. “Transferring decision-making power from local councils and communities and handing them to developers is the exact opposite of building back better. “The best way to deliver the places that we need, at the pace we need them, is to make it easier for local councils to get Local Plans in place, and then to hold developers to those plans. “One glimmer of hope in the prime minister’s words are those prioritising building on brownfield to release pressure on greenfield sites. But if we are to truly build back better, and ‘level up’ across the country, we need to make sure the voices of local communities are strengthened in shaping the homes and places that they will inherit.” Reform of the Use Classes Order means there will be total flexibility in repurposing more types of commercial premises. Examples might be shops or stores being converted to cafés or offices without the need for planning applications and local authority approval. However, there will not be such flexibility for pubs, libraries, village shops and other buildings judged essential to communities.
CPRE, the countryside charity, has given a decidedly hostile response to the prime minister’s post-coronavirus recovery plan in which he promised to “build, build, build”. Boris Johnson’s announcement of a ‘new deal’, delivered in Dudley yesterday (Tuesday, June 30), pledged £5 billion to build homes and infrastructure and vowed to speed up and intensify plans set out in the Tory election manifesto. The UK economy has reportedly shrunk faster between January and March this year than at any time since 1979 and the government proposals are intended to halt that decline. Key features of Johnson’s ‘new deal’, some of which had already been announced, include:
£100 million for 29 road projects
£12 billion to help build 180,000 new affordable homes for ownership and rent over the next eight years
£1.5 billion for hospitals, the removal of mental-health dormitories and improving A&E capacity
More than £1 billion for new school buildings
Tom Fyans, campaigns and policy director at CPRE, made a blistering attack on the prime minister’s scheme: “With road-building at its heart, the PM’s ‘new deal’ makes a mockery of the government’s so-called green recovery. “At this historic moment, the government must show real ambition and build back better, not worse, and in doing so balance our health and well-being, nature and countryside and the economic recovery. “The government cannot continue to ignore the surge in appreciation for green spaces and the public appetite to reduce our carbon emissions. “We must not even begin down this path with plans for £27 billion spending on roads. That money could be much better spent connecting towns and villages with low-carbon public transport, shoring up rural economies and businesses hard hit by the coronavirus and investing in genuinely affordable and well-designed housing. “Furthermore, the PM has pledged to ‘build at the pace that this moment requires’, which strikes fear in the hearts of those who understand the benefits of a plan-led system. “Rushing through potentially poor-quality development is the very antithesis of building back better. We already know, from painful experience, a rush for development trades off quality homes and infrastructure for quick and easy economic growth. “This trade-off isn’t necessary. It’s already far too easy to build poor-quality homes and therefore any plans to deregulate our democratic, locally accountable planning system will take decision-making powers from communities and local councils and hand it to short-sighted developers. “The government can only seriously claim to be pursuing the levelling-up agenda after scrapping planned spend on roads and refocusing planning reforms to deliver for people rather than developers. “Until then, it’s the same old deal.”
The hen harrier has suffered appalling levels of persecution in this country – will the Environment Bill afford it greater protection? (pic Steve Ashton)
“The draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill sets out how we will maintain environmental standards as we leave the EU and build on the vision of the 25 Year Environment Plan.”
These underwhelming words from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announcing last month’s (December 2018) publication of draft clauses for the first Environment Bill in some 20 years belie the importance of the eventual document.
This future for our natural environment once this country has departed the EU has exercised the thoughts of many – for example, CPRE Kent’s Graham Warren – but we are perhaps now some way closer to understanding quite what might lie in store.
Introducing the draft clauses, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, writes: “We have ambitions to be the home of the boldest possible environmental policies, and to set an example of excellent and effective leadership at home and abroad.
“As we leave the EU, this new environmental law marks an unprecedented step forward – helping to safeguard our commitment to environmental protection for generations to come.”
What does CPRE make of it? While not dismissing the draft Bill out of hand, it is fair to say it is not quite so convinced as it gives what it calls “a cautious welcome” to the announcement.
“While the ambition is there, detail and clear targets are evidently lacking,” says a statement on the CPRE national website.
It continues: “The core elements published in the draft clauses include:
Environmental principles to help protect the environment
The establishment of a governance body – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – to uphold environmental legislation.
A commitment to making it a legal requirement for the government to have a plan for improving the environment.”
Tom Fyans, CPRE director of campaigns and policy, said: “Environmental principles are crucial to the way law is created, from planning and land-use policy to air quality and biodiversity targets, yet the draft Bill offers only the weak requirement that ministers ‘have regard to’ or ‘consider’ them.
“While the proposed Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) has some useful legal powers, there are significant unanswered questions regarding its relationship with the planning system, when decisions are in breach of environmental law, and how it will engage with climate change – the greatest threat to the countryside.
“We are also seriously concerned that the OEP will lack the true independence required to hold the government to account.
“We are pleased that the 25 Year Environment Plan will be placed on a statutory footing, with requirements to report to Parliament on the government’s progress to improve the environment.
“But even here there is much more work required on the future environmental priorities – for example, examining how targets are set for improvements in air and water quality, soil health and waste and resource use.”
This, of course, should not be the end of the matter and CPRE says it “looks forward to having many opportunities in the coming year to engage with Defra officials and through Parliamentary processes to ensure the Bill is improved and is able to deliver the admirable ambitions of the government.”
Will Kent’s wild places be better protected as a result of the government’s 25-year plan? This is Westbere in the Stour valley (pic Richard Brooks)
The publication on Thursday last week (January 11) of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan met – as perhaps is the case with most things emanating from our political leaders – a mixed response.
It was difficult to argue against the principles it embraced and most commentators have broadly welcomed the plan, although it has been criticised for a lack of detail and commitment to concrete action.
To make up your own mind, you can read the 125-page document (or at least as much as you want to read!) here.
Just to give you an idea of the government’s stated intention, in the meantime, Prime Minister Theresa May says in the plan’s forward:
“Our natural environment is our most precious inheritance. The United Kingdom is blessed with a wonderful variety of natural landscapes and habitats and our 25 Year Environment Plan sets out our comprehensive and long-term approach to protecting and enhancing them in England for the next generation.
“Its goals are simple: cleaner air and water; plants and animals which are thriving; and a cleaner, greener country for us all. We have already taken huge strides to improve environmental protections, from banning microbeads which harm our marine life to improving the quality of the air we breathe to improving standards of animal welfare. This plan sets out the further action we will take.
“By using our land more sustainably and creating new habitats for wildlife, including by planting more trees, we can arrest the decline in native species and improve our biodiversity. By tackling the scourge of waste plastic we can make our oceans cleaner and healthier. Connecting more people with the environment will promote greater well-being. And by making the most of emerging technologies, we can build a cleaner, greener country and reap the economic rewards of the clean growth revolution.”
And Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, adds: “It is this Government’s ambition to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. We have made significant progress but there is much more to be done. The 25 Year Environment Plan that we have published today outlines the steps we propose to take to achieve our ambition.”
So what does CPRE make of it?
Belinda Gordon, our head of government and rural affairs, said: “The introduction of a 25-year Environment Plan is a fantastic commitment to long-term investment in the health, protection and enhancement of our countryside.
“We are delighted to see the Government taking measures to improve our National Parks, Green Belts and wider landscapes.
“However, despite the Government’s best intentions, we are concerned that the plan does not adequately address the growing development pressures on England’s countryside.
“England’s land is a finite resource – it is vital that we ensure we have a planning system that ensures the best use of land, while protecting our landscape and the wider natural environment.
“We look forward to working with the Government to make sure our planning system delivers what our communities and environment need.”
Belinda gives greater detail in her blog A vision for change here, in which she talks of “a sense of disappointment about lack of detail in some areas while some anticipated announcements were not in the final plan”.
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