Campaigners warn on planning dangers

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Countryside campaigners on Wednesday warn about the “truly irreversible damage” taking place because of the overhaul of the planning system and urge the coalition to reverse its “charter for builders”.

But senior ministers agreed at Tuesday’s weekly cabinet meeting to press ahead with the plans, under which all “sustainable development” must be waved through by any council that has not drawn up new local plans.

A third of local authorities have still not had their plans approved, leaving them open to unwanted building.

Eric Pickles, communities secretary, wants to go further and allow more liberalisation of the planning system as part of the coalition’s attempt to generate economic growth.

Last week’s Budget opened the way for a new “permitted development right” for people to convert retail properties into homes without planning permission – following a similar move to allow office-to-flats conversions.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England warns on Wednesday that the system, called the national planning policy framework, will be “groundbreaking in all the wrong ways”.

The group said that the government’s requirement for councils to identify at least five years’ worth of “deliverable” sites for new housing was being used to push through unnecessary rural schemes.

“The government’s rhetoric is all about localism, but local communities are increasingly powerless to prevent damaging development even in the most sensitive locations,” said Neil Sinden, CPRE’s director of policy and campaigns.

Mr Pickles told the Financial Times that he would keep “powering ahead” as the system would help put Britain “steer a course towards growth on the horizon”.

The coalition has been under fire for the past year from a loose coalition of environmental groups, councils and rightwing newspapers.

But the government argues that local authorities have had a year to put in place their local plans and, therefore, have no excuse for not doing so.

“Seven out of 10 local councils now have published local plans compared to two out of 10 previously, and there is good progress across the remainder so communities will not now become more at risk of unsustainable speculative development,” said the Department for Communities and Local Government.

It added that strong protections remained in place, including greenbelt, “open countryside” and areas of outstanding beauty.

The government said that the CPRE’s call for brownfield land to be prioritised was already written into the new planning framework.

But Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, said that the changes were weakening planners’ controls over rural land. “I think that this represents the biggest change in countryside protection since the 1940s,” he said.

Mr Pickles said that he was determined to “stay the course” over the National Planning Policy Framework because it was speeding up decision-making. “Ninety-nine per cent of all planning decisions are now right first time,” he said. “Nearly nine in 10 planning applications are approved – a 10-year high.

“The evidence is clear. Britain is building again,” said Mr Pickles, citing figures from the Home Builders Federation that suggest a 62 per cent rise in new home approvals by local authorities in the last quarter of 2012 compared with the same period of 2011.

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