• What Cameron claims will be prevented, under NPPF…

    4th February 2012 | News | Claire
  • If you want to see the future – and I wouldn’t really advise it if you want to retain your equanimity – go to ancient Rutland. For the historic market town of Oakham in the heart of England’s smallest county is already suffering the effects of the Government’s controversial planning “reforms”. And they are the exact opposite of what the Prime Minister says he wants to achieve.

    Just half a mile south of the centre of the town – complete with castle, butter cross, stocks and a mention in the Domesday Book – planning permission has been given to build a big estate of around 100 houses on fields in a locally defined Area of Particularly Attractive Countryside that were supposedly exempt from development. Despite vigorous local opposition, the plans were approved because they conformed with the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – even though it is yet to be implemented and ministers have spent the past months redrafting it in response to an enormous public outcry.

    Unless ministers produce a drastically different document in the next few weeks, this experience is going to become commonplace throughout the country, not least because – as a report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) will reveal on Monday – the reforms will withdraw a 25-year-old safeguard from more than half of the English landscape. And it will happen despite ministers’ repeated insistence that the reforms will give local people power to control inappropriate development through drawing up their own local plans.

    Indeed Oakham, and Rutland as a whole, seem to exemplify what the Government wants local communities to do. Far from exhibiting the “nihilistic selfishness” of trying to “preserve” things in “aspic” – of which planning minister Greg Clark has accused the reforms’ opponents – Oakham has accepted that it should be a focus for future housing growth. Rutland has drawn up a local plan to indicate the most sustainable places for more than 1,000 new homes, including a large area to the north-west of the town.

    The plan specifically excluded the area to the south, where the new estate is to be built, as “a classic vale landscape of meadows and fields”. And the Government’s own Planning Inspectorate, after scrutinising the plan, agreed that development on the estate’s site would be “very intrusive and visually detrimental to the existing rural character of the area, the setting of and approach to Oakham, and to the wider landscape of the vale”.

    So when the planning application was made, Rutland Council duly rejected it, only for the developer to appeal. After a public inquiry, the council was overruled, with the inspector citing the NPPF’s requirement that more land should be set aside for housing, and its commitment to promoting “sustainable economic growth”.

    Yet this is precisely what Mr Cameron says the reforms are designed to prevent, telling the BBC programme Countryfile in an interview last month that the proposed measures would “give communities much more say, much more control”. He added: “Our reforms will make it easier for communities to say ‘we are not going to have a big plonking housing estate landing next to the village, but we would like 10, 20, 30 extra houses, and we would like them built this way, to be built for local people.” Tell that to the good citizens of Oakham.

    The Prime Minister went on to stress how he “cared deeply” about the countryside, citing the beauty of his west Oxfordshire constituency and swearing that he “would no more put that at risk than I would put at risk my own family”. But when pressed, he resorts, like all his ministers, to saying that there would be no change to the protection enjoyed by Green Belts, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, and National Parks.

    That is not entirely so. As The Daily Telegraph has revealed, the draft NPPF would make it easier to build on Green Belts and relax National Park safeguards, especially on quarries. But, as the CPRE report shows, the big danger lies outside these specially protected areas.

    For a quarter of a century, planners have been obliged to take “the intrinsic character and beauty” of such wider countryside into account. The draft NPPF scraps the safeguard. This will make it much easier to build on the Oakham site, in almost all of the rest of Rutland, and on 55 per cent of England’s rural land. Much-loved areas such as Romney Marsh, the Vale of Pewsey, north-west Dorset, south Somerset, most of Cornwall and Kent’s Garden of England will be substantially more at risk.

    Ministers are expected to make big changes to the reforms, but so far do not seem to have grasped this danger to the countryside at large. Mr Cameron should ensure they do.