Shake-up of planning rules 'will put countryside at risk'
Campaigners fear vital protection for the countryside could be weakened if thousands of pages of planning guidance are scrapped following a detailed review of the system by a Westcountry peer.
The panel led by former Truro and St Austell MP Matthew Taylor – now Lord Taylor of Goss Moor – found there were 7,000 pages of Government guidance.
Up to 80% of that framework could now be axed, with much of it out-of-date and unchanged since the 1960s with countless areas of contradiction.
But campaigners are concerned that the review and its timing, given the Government's view that increased house-building can help stimulate the economy, could lead to a weakening of protections for greenfield sites.
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Robin Hogg, chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England in Devon, agreed with the revision of planning guidance, saying much of it was "rubbish", but said he was concerned at the context and speed at which it was being done. He said: "It is a complete myth that planning guidance has got in the way of sensible development. It is manifestly untrue. But it has become Conservative dogma which is the excuse for doing this work."
Recommendations from the review could be implemented as early as April, coinciding with the Government's deadline for local authorities to set their "local plans" which outline how much development is required and where it is needed.
But Mr Hogg said some councils were struggling to meet the cut-off date – a void which could be exploited by developers.
"I can see that George Osborne is desperate to create jobs and get the economy going again but I don't believe housebuilding is the answer," he added.
"We will rue the day when new towns like Sherford, near Plymouth, are built in the countryside.
"We need to look after the countryside to provide for our children and the new planning regime will make that extremely difficult."
Consultation on the conclusions of the review, which began in October, was launched a few days before Christmas. The Government said the panel "did not review planning policy" and "were not tasked with revaluating green belt policy or other countryside protections, which continue to be safeguarded".
The panel's report said the thousands of page of guidance had "never been effectively managed as a whole" which was a "critical consideration for the future if we are not to end up here again".
"There are documents, dating back as far as the 1970s and 1960s, which whilst no doubt valuable at the time of publication, are wildly out-of-date," it said.
"Even documents that state they will be, and need to be, regularly updated as 'living documents' have sometimes not been amended since first publication – years or even decades ago.
"Resources were put together at the time, including outside expertise, to produce them, but the sheer quantity and diversity of material means the department and its predecessors have never had the resources to maintain them.
"A critical issue for the future is that there must be a managed process for updating or canceling documents as time passes."
It added: "Crucially, the new guidance suite we propose must not be allowed to get into this confused state again. Live management of the set of guidance must be the core task for Government."
Overall, guidance from Government should be "whittled down to an essential, coherent, accessible and well-managed suite of guidance that aids the delivery of good planning".
On the contentious issue of forecasts for future housing needs, the report said guidance "should clarify the 'ground rules' for these processes so there is clarity about approach". But, it added: "Guidance should support the application of local skills and judgement, not automate them."
The current consultation is seeking public opinion on the principle of the changes. In the second the public will get the chance to comment on the changes.
"It is very clear that the old way of doing things is no longer fit for purpose," Lord Taylor said.
"We have made recommendations for a modern web-based resource that is clear, up-to-date, coherent and easily usable, not just by planners and developers, but the public too."
Planning minister Nick Boles added: "I'm very grateful to the group for all the work they have done on this. We will carefully consider the report's recommendations and I would urge other users of the planning system to have their say by responding to the consultation."