CPRE Devon: Planning reforms risk rural free-for-all

“Even in these truly extraordinary circumstances, we believe the planning system must remain transparent, democratic and fair, and be seen to be so. Weeks ago, I wrote to all of Devon’s Conservative MPs to express the charity’s concerns. So far, only one of our Tory representatives at Westminster – Anne-Marie Morris MP [Newton Abbot]-has properly responded.”

The PM’s plans to Build, Build, Build, could spell disaster says Penny Mills, Devon Director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England – Western Morning News

HERE in the Westcountry, we are lucky to have some of the most stunning landscapes anywhere in Britain. The green fields and rolling hills we may have taken for granted before lockdown are now appreciated as a vital resource – for our health and wellbeing, and for food production in these uncertain times.

But our countryside is facing an unseen threat: Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War when he outlined the. Government’s plans to kickstart the construction industry and, quite literally, build Britain out of a recession.

Make no mistake, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the UK economy, its homes and infrastructure in a way that priori-uses people and the planet.

However, the Devon branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) fears this opportunity is about to be squandered, with potentially disastrous consequences both for our countryside and for local democracy.

The PM’s proposals would prioritise the speedy re-purposing of redundant town-centre premises and brownfield sites, something CPRE Devon has long campaigned for. We are not anti-development. We welcome moves to adapt empty commercial properties, providing new homes without increasing the pressure to build on greenfield land. So far, so good.

However, we are worried that the rapid changes made to the way the planning system works, brought in at the start of lockdown to respond to public health needs during the pandemic, now look set to be expanded.

This month the Government intends to set out its plans for a comprehensive overhaul of Eng land’s seven-decade-old planning system. We fear that the rush to remove appropriate checks and balances on how planning decisions are made could have a disastrous effect on our countryside, our communities and local democracy, without providing the affordable, sustainable homes Devon badly needs.

The Government claims this new, pared-back approach to planning will work better for our modem economy and society. But will it? Even before coronavirus reared its ugly head, there was evidence that community involvement in planning decisions was being undermined. More recently, there have been worrying signs that the relaxed planning approach introduced in response to the pandemic is being misused. We’ve heard of local planning meetings being shut off to the public, meaning important decisions are being made behind closed doors and without proper public consultation.

CPRE Devon believes that local people have an important role to play in shaping the future of the places where they live.

Removing red tape presents a very real threat – allowing profit-driven developers the opportunity to silence communities and fast track bad planning decisions. The Government says developers will still need to adhere to high standards and regulations “just without the unnecessary red tape’: How so? Who will make sure developers do what they promise without the necessary checks and balances in place? Who will hold the less scrupulous house builders to account?

CPRE Devon may have been quieter than usual during lockdown, but planning issues have remained firmly at the top of our agenda throughout.

Even in these truly extraordinary circumstances, we believe the planning system must remain transparent, democratic and fair, and be seen to be so. Weeks ago, I wrote to all of Devon’s Conservative MPs to express the charity’s concerns. So far, only one of our Tory representatives at Westminster – Anne-Marie Morris MP -has properly responded.

The jury is still out on some of the Prime Minister’s other pledges, for example, the announcement that work will begin to look at how government-owned land can be managed more effectively.
We’re told “a new, ambitious cross-government strategy will look at how public sector land can be managed and released so it can be put to better use. This would include home building, improving the environment, contributing to net-zero goals and injecting growth opportunities into communities across the country?’

The Government has also confirmed that a national programme will inject £12bn to support new affordable homes for ownership and rent over the next 8 years, and the Home Building -Fund will receive a boost to help smaller developers access finance for new housing projects.

These measures appear to be a step in the right direction to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time, but – dare we say? – we have heard similar promises before, which a merry-go-round of housing ministers over the years have spectacularly failed to deliver on.