I last wrote about the Green Belt on June 2nd, before the Draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) had been published. I identified it then as a very Tory problem because the Tories in the government want it loosened, whilst the Tories in the shire counties want it maintained - strengthened even.
The NPPF appeared at the end of July, and most of the mainstream press coverage since then has been expressing the widespread fear that the countryside is about to be concreted over and that we are all about to be engulfed in urban sprawl. The usual suspects are behind this, notably the CPRE and The National Trust, and big names such as Griff Rhys Jones and Simon Jenkins have been persuaded to write eloquent pieces in the Times and the Guardian. They are trying to whip up a fear, a hysteria, along the lines of campaign to save our forests which resulted in a Government U turn earlier this year. They want to "turn back the tide" of development which the NPPF vaguely hints at.
In fact the NPPF is a wonderfully vague document. You'd think in managing to trim planning guidance down from 1,000 pages to 50-odd, it would now read like a concise cinema listing or a menu, but most of theses pages are taken up with aspirational statements and rather woolly policy indicators, so it's quite hard to figure out what the NPPF is actually on about.
The thing that these objectors object to is this tell-tale phrase (oft repeated, it must be said) that there should be a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Jenkins, in particular, tore into the S word, accusing the government of using it as a smokescreen to push through any development, but as far as I can work out, there is little if any guidance in the NPPF on what is meant by sustainable development. My guess is that, in the spirit of localism, the definition will be left to individual councils to work out.
But it remains an important adjective because presumably if there is no national definition of sustainable, then each council can more or less tinker with the definition to encourage or discourage development. What NPPF doesn't offer is clarity: I can see years of ugly planning battles ahead with expensive QCs discussing whether or not Development X is sustainable. "Not in Berkshire, m'lud."
Jenkins's assumption that it is a weightless word, a shim-sham put there to dress any development as good development, is probably a little off the mark.
The next point to consider is the status of the Green Belt. It appears to hold two separate meanings. The first is the technical one, the one planners recognise, of land specifically delineated as Green Belt (or as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), which in fact is a surprisingly small amount of the countryside. The second is the idea that all open countryside is green belt, which is the perception that most of the public has. In fact most of the UK is designated in planning terms as farmland and for the past 50-odd years you haven't been able to build on it. Not because it's green belt, but because the planning system has chosen to restrict building to existing settlements.
Now what's at risk, if presumption in favour of sustainable development becomes the norm, is the status of this non-green belt farmland. This explains how supporters of the NPPF can say that Green Belts (and AONB) remain as protected as they ever have been, whilst those railed against the changes claim that the countryside is about to be concreted over.
But NPPF doesn't say anything as simple as this. It doesn't state that concepts such as village envelopes should be shredded or that all non-green belt farmland is now up for grabs. Rather it frames the whole issue around the proposals being judged to be suitably sustainable and leaves the locals to figure out what to do.
Which brings us onto the thorny issue of Cash for Sprawl, which is slowly simmering away in the background. This is the libertarian concept that current planning restrictions have a monetary value which is expressed in the difference between the cost of non-developable farmland (peanuts) and land with building permission (squillions). An individual may own a piece of land but, the way things stand, the right to develop it is something vested in the surrounding community. The argument goes that, as the ability to turn a field into a building plot (and thus perhaps £10,000 into £1million) rests with the neighbours, it is the neighbours who should benefit - especially as it's the neighbours who will be inconvenienced by a) the building work) b) the loss of a nice view and c) maybe lower house prices as a result. If you like, it's compensation money. Or, as I have seen in succinctly summarised by anti-campaigners, Cash for Sprawl.
Needless to say, there is nothing about any of this in NPPF. The concept of planning gain is nothing new - in fact our social housing budget has been based on little more for decades. But up until now, there has been a very clear distinction between community gain (i.e. more playgrounds, cycle paths, new schools, etc) and individual gain (via rate rebates or even cash payments). The thought of crossing this dividing line makes many people very uncomfortable because it's beginning to feel less like big society stuff and more like greed or bribery. So to date this sort of debate has been going on away from the glare of mainstream media, and hasn't really entered the public realm.
But that too may be changing, if this week's Sunday Times is anything to go by. It carries two pieces on the planning debate. The first, by Jenni Russell, Throwing the Countryside to the Developer Wolves, is a call to arms to all national Trust/CPRE types, very much in the Simon Jenkins mould. But two pages further on, in a Think Tank piece, an article by Neil O'Brien of the Policy Exchange is entitled Get Paid to loosen the Green Belt. Unfortunately, the articles are paywalled so I can't provide a link. But if you've followed this piece so far, you will have a pretty good idea of what is in them. O'Brien's killer paragraph goes thus:
A better solution would be to let communities keep more of the planning gain and concentrate the money on those nearby who are most affected by development. Cash should go directly to households, rather than just councils or neighbourhoods. A big cheque in the post might prove some consolation for having development nearby.
No one has got as far as outlining a mechanism by which this might happen. Who would decide who would be eligible, and how much each household might receive? You don't have to think about this very long and to see that you might be opening a can of worms here, setting neighbour against neighbour in a pro-development gold rush. But if it "worked", suddenly every village in England might be falling over themselves to climb aboard this particular bandwagon - precisely what the CPRE fear. NPPF is no help here. It's simply left to local councils to decide how to handle it, and to decide what is or what isn't sustainable.
And this is perhaps the nub of the problem. NPPF doesn't really make it clear how much power the local councils will have in future. Are they still going to remain the sole arbiters of where development can or cannot take place? Or are developers (be they individuals, groups or professionals) going to be able to bring forward their own schemes on any bit of farmland that takes their fancy, in return for some form of "community cashback." You can't really have both. Either the planning system remains top-down, council led, or it becomes bottom-up, developer pushed, with the role of the council reduced to protecting specific areas, and arbitrating on whether the proposals are sustainable or not.