Fast track to planning disaster in Devon?

Ross Tibbles
Ross Tibbles

Devon’s lush green landscape has been a source of great comfort to many of us during lockdown, but as restrictions on our movements begin to ease, the pursuit of economic recovery is ramping up the threat to our countryside. The Government, with its 80-seat parliamentary majority, is preparing to bulldoze its way through our planning system with the most radical reforms since 1947.

CPRE Devon is the only organisation campaigning across the county to protect our precious countryside and green spaces for future generations. We believe Boris Johnson has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the UK economy, its homes and infrastructure in a way that prioritises people and the planet, but we fear this golden opportunity is about to be squandered.

Earlier this month, in the White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick laid bare the Government’s proposals to legislate for what can only be described as a property developer’s charter. These plans to ‘Build, Build, Build’ Britain out of the current economic crisis spell potential disaster for our countryside, without delivering the very types of homes we actually need. Young people are being priced out of rural communities not because the country is failing to build enough homes, but because we are failing to construct enough genuinely affordable homes. We should also be aspiring to provide sustainable homes for young house buyers – long before 2050 – built to exacting environmental standards and in the right locations.

We admit the current planning system is far from perfect. An overhaul is long overdue. However, we believe that local people have an important role to play in shaping the future of the places where they live, and we’d like to see a system that gives local communities more say over what is built, and where, in their area.

The Government seems hell bent on doing the exact opposite: planning control would effectively pass from our local planning authorities (district councils) to property developers – the very people who stand to gain huge profits from construction. In reality, local people won’t have much say.

This ‘Klondike gold rush’ seems like a hysterical overreaction to meet the Government’s arbitrary national target of 300,000 new houses per year, a figure based on incorrect data and flawed methodology. We don’t need to build as many homes as the government says we do here in the South West. CPRE Devon has proved it in two groundbreaking reports. We are about to publish a third report which uses the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). These figures show that West Devon will face an 11% increase in new homes and Mid Devon a 17% increase over the next decade.

In reality, planning is not the reason why house building targets are not being met. 90% of planning applications are granted. Nationwide, house-builders are sitting on 1,000,000 permissions – enough to build for four years at the present rate.

Here in Devon we are lucky to have Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks as well as five AONBs, which give protection against indiscriminate rural development. We trust these areas will continue to remain special under the Government’s proposed three-zone land designation. However, anywhere that is not designated as ‘Protected’ will be categorised as either a ‘Growth’ or’ ‘Renewal’ zone, effectively up for grabs for development. The loosening of controls opens up the risk of wanton building everywhere that isn’t deemed ‘Protected’ – the gateway towns to Dartmoor, for example.

Some of the proposals put forward in the White Paper are a step in the right direction. I might add that these are the very policies CPRE Devon has long campaigned for, prioritising the re-use of brownfield sites and empty buildings in our towns and cities. However, the devil is in the detail. On closer examination, we were alarmed to discover the reforms include new permitted development rights, which allow existing buildings to be replaced or extended, adding multiple storeys to homes and offices regardless of the street scene. Such measures would significantly change the character of the high street in some of our market towns, with little or no local planning constraints outside of protected areas.

The Government says developers will still need to adhere to high standards and regulations ‘just without the unnecessary red tape’. How will this work in practice? Who will make sure developers deliver what they promise once they’ve been given carte blanche? Who will hold the less scrupulous house builders to account?

And what about Local and Neighbourhood Plans? Painstakingly developed over the course of years, these look set to be scrapped – replaced by the new zoning and uniform house building templates. The Government talks of beauty in design, but if developers are allowed to build to nationally-approved templates that keep their costs to a minimum, there will be no need to nod to vernacular architecture or local materials. One area of the country will look just like another.

All of these radical changes would come on top of those slipped in ‘under the radar’ during lockdown, which effectively put the planning process online and disenfranchised anyone without internet access and a computer from taking part.

I personally wrote to all the county’s Conservative MPs about this in May, yet only one has had the courtesy to give a full reply.

If our elected politicians are indifferent to the erosion of democratic decision-making in the planning process, how can we trust the Government to maintain high standards when it tears up the rule book? If you share our concerns, now’s the time to join us.

Local Life