No free-for-all to concrete over countryside

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LET’S be clear what we’re trying to do here. Under Labour, house building fell to its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s. Local housing waiting lists doubled, the total number of affordable homes in the country fell, and only one in four young families could afford to buy a home by the time Labour left office.

Yet developments still appear from nowhere, without involvement by local communities, and without any sense of ownership or engagement by the local communities. All the upside from new development seems to accrue to the new communities; for the existing communities it is all downside.

We want to change all of that. We want to make it easier and quicker for desirable development to take place, but with much greater control, involvement and benefit for local people and communities. The draft NPPF seeks the engagement of local communities – sidelined under Labour’s centrally imposed planning policies – to ensure decisions reflect their vision of the future, while making sure larger than local objectives are met by restricting the impact of development on the natural environment.

Through the Localism Bill we are abolishing Labour’s unpopular Regional Strategies and putting elected local councillors back in charge, accountable to local people via the ballot box. Our new approach streamlines reams of complex and unwieldy national planning policy into a consolidated and clearer set of priorities.

And, yes, it does include a new presumption in favour of sustainable development. This is not some new free-for-all charter for unrestricted concreting of the countryside. This is the myth that I was criticising, albeit in unguarded language. It replaces a much more open presumption that has existed in planning law since the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947: the presumption in favour of development, without any restriction around sustainability.

What this means is that where a local plan or proposed development does not give rise to problems it should be approved without delay. But this does not show a green light to development everywhere. Local plans will continue to set out what would be unacceptable, and neither plans nor developments may compromise national requirements for sustainability.

We have undertaken that the new system will not weaken current protections for the Green Belt, AONBs, or SSSIs. We want to protect our wonderful countryside, and to allow sensible development, in tune with the preferences of local communities.

It will never be without controversy. And we are listening to the – loudly expressed! – views of the public.

FRANCIS MAUDE

MP for Horsham