Concrete desert warning from National Trust over new planning rules

Boris Johnson’s planning reforms risk creating “concrete deserts” that are “devoid of green space”, the director of the National Trust has warned.

George Grylls, Melissa York

Hilary McGrady said that she had “significant concerns” about the scale and pace of the plans, calling them “too dismissive of what currently works”.

In August, No 10 announced the biggest shake-up in planning laws in 70 years with Mr Johnson determined to construct 300,000 homes a year as part of his “Build, Build, Build” agenda.

Rural land in the green belt and in Areas of Outstanding National Beauty will fall into protected zones — where applications will probably face rejection. In areas marked for renewal, most proposals will be approved. Permission will automatically be granted for development in growth areas.

The basis for the present system is the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, has said the planning process is broken and Mr Johnson has said that “newt-counting delays” prevent greater housebuilding.

Ms McGrady, who represents 5.6 million National Trust members, said that reforms would not work without “genuine public scrutiny”. “What should we make of the proposed growth, recovery and protected areas? Certainly they must not lead to concrete deserts devoid of green space, lacking corridors for nature and sustainable travel.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “These claims are entirely wrong, and ignore the fact that our reforms to the outdated planning system protect green spaces and will create beautiful and well-designed communities, with green spaces and tree-lined streets as the norm. Local communities will be able to choose land for ‘protection’, helping them pass on valued green spaces for future generations.”

Under existing rules, the public can object to developments at two points in the planning process: when the council draws up a local plan and when a specific building applies for permission.

The government argues that the second part of the process is too often dominated by “a small minority of voices” and wants to minimise consultation at this phase.

Ms McGrady questioned the government’s plan to enshrine beauty in new design codes after Mr Jenrick said that he would legally enforce tree-planting in new developments and demand that future buildings take architectural inspiration from “Bath, Belgravia and Bournville”.

She said: “More tree-lined streets and a ‘fast track for beauty’ sound good, but how will this happen?’ We must not take a skin-deep approach when nature is in meltdown and we are in the teeth of the climate crisis.”

Tory backbenchers including the former cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling have reservations about the reforms. About 80 Tory MPs are in a Whatsapp group that is co-ordinating opposition to the changes.

One MP said: “The government is not listening. Dominic Cummings holds parliament in contempt and he’s just bulldozing these plans through.”

A source of contention is an algorithm that calculates where the 300,000 houses will be built each year. The formula will concentrate building in London and rural areas, but scale back projects in northern cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

In the Commons this month, Theresa May said the algorithmic approach was “mechanistic and ill-conceived”. Ministers would not reform the system by removing local democracy and cutting the number of affordable homes that are built, she said.