• Green campaigners hysterical: MP is now planning minister

    5th September 2012 | News | Claire
  • David Cameron will signal a fresh row over the green belt today with the appointment of a minister who describes opponents of planning reform as ‘hysterical, scare- mongering latter-day Luddites’.

    In a clear statement of intent, the Prime Minister will make prominent Tory moderniser Nick Boles his planning minister, despite mounting concern on the Conservative benches that tearing up planning rules could cost the party dear at the next election.

    Mr Boles has a track record as a radical thinker who wants to slash red tape to boost the economy.

    In a speech to the influential Tory Reform Group this year he launched an attack on a campaign against the Government’s planning revamp, led by the National Trust.

    ‘Business investment is deterred by the bureaucratic rigidity of our outdated planning regime,’ he said. So it is essential that we press on with our planning reforms and do not allow the hysterical scare-mongering of latter-day Luddites to strangle developments that will boost living standards.’

    George Osborne, who is championing a series of changes to the planning system, is thought to have played a key role in Mr Boles’s appointment.

    Speaking at the weekend, the Chancellor raised the prospect that developers could build on green belt land, provided other areas of land were designated for protection.

    He said councils would be encouraged to use existing powers in cases where green belt development was the best option.

    Mr Osborne is also pressing for the law to be changed to speed up the planning system so that major infrastructure projects such as runways and nuclear power stations can be fast-tracked.

    He said the planning system leads to unnecessary delays and vowed to make it harder for residents to object to building proposals.

    The drive comes just months after the Government ended a bruising battle over planning with the National Trust and other conservation bodies.

    A National Planning Policy Framework agreed this year introduced a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ and slashed official planning guidance from more than 1,000 pages to just 50.

    But the country’s top planning officer criticised the Chancellor’s plans, and said they could backfire. Malcolm Sharp, president of the Planning Officers’ Society, said it was developers’ lack of finance and the weak economy that prevented development, not red tape.

    Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who is in charge of the planning system, is cautious about re-opening the controversial issue so soon, and argues that the Government has achieved big changes that should boost the economy.

    He is said to have asked for a statement guaranteeing that laws protecting the green belt will not be changed.

    Mr Osborne’s intervention has prompted alarm on the Tory back benches. Right-winger Philip Davies said: ‘I am all for simplifying planning procedures for developments in inner city sites, but I am opposed to anything that makes it easier to build on green belt.

    ‘That is utterly unacceptable and I think it is already too easy.’

    Fellow Tory Julian Lewis said the scars left by the last planning row should be given time to heal. He also questioned whether it was right to make lasting changes to the planning system in the hope of achieving short-term economic gains.

    He added: ‘This is a very sensitive issue for a government that prides itself on its environmental credentials. Economic crises come and go but you can only spoil your environment once.

    ‘It is very hard to reverse the damage if it has been sacrificed for short-term economic reasons.’

    Heather Wheeler, a member of the Commons communities and local government committee, said: ‘I would be very surprised if ministers revoked any protection from the green belt, given the promises that have been made in the past.’