On Thursday, I was invited to a blogger's briefing the offices of the National Trust in London, from where they are masterminding the campaign against the government's planning reforms. I'd never been to a blogger's briefing before and I was curious enough to take the bait.
"It's Day 57 of our campaign and we've only failed to get on the front page of a national daily twice" announced Andrew Lainton, who I was seated next to. He doesn't work for the National Trust but seems to be an embedded blogger working on "the campaign." Hell, I hadn't even realised there was a campaign before this briefing so I felt I was beginning to get up to speed. Lainton and the National Trust bods were quietly purring away because their campaign is being so successful and they had even elicited a letter from David Cameron earlier in the week, saying some soothing words.
I think the purpose of the meeting was whip up even more disquiet on the blogoshere (how I hate that word!) which is why I was there. But soon I found myself getting antagonised by the whole tone of the meeting, and started questioning them on what they were trying to achieve. I wasn't a lone dissenting voice: I was joined by the eloquent observations of David Brock, a planning lawyer, who pointed out that a presumption in favour of development (whether sustainable or not) was not new and had, in fact, has always been at the heart of the planning system. He produced evidence that it had been in place as far back as 1923. Cripes, I was getting a history lesson now.
Together, David Brock and I started chipping away at the National Trust attack dogs. "What are you hoping to achieve in your campaign. You've frightened the horses in the shires, but to what purpose. Do you want the goverment to abandon NPPF?"
NT: "Oh no, we are not against development and we like the idea of reforming the planning system. But we think it's now swung too far in favour of developers and that we want to reign it in a little."
"Isn't that down to finessing a few clauses then? Why the need for such a fear-inducing campaign?"
NT: "Because NPPF as it stands is fundamentally flawed."
"But you just said you are happy with the idea of NPPF and think just a few clauses need amending."
NT: "That's right. And it's fundamentally flawed, it's a developer's charter, and England will disappear under concrete from Stonehenge to Flatford Mill."
And so it went around in circles. 90 minutes into the blogger's briefing and I was by now feeling sorry for the government, because this lot are like a pack of well-heeled wolves, and it seems to me they have now got the Coalition on the run. Some of them (Wolfson, Pickles, Osborne) are trying to tough it out, defending the pro-development aspects of NPPF, saying its high-time Britain got building again as if a planning document is going to start a housebuilding boom (fat chance), whilst others (Cameron, Clark) are coming on like soft cops, being all reasonable and placatory. But it's the National Trust-led campaign against NPPF which is definitely setting the agenda. Planning isn't exactly the natural territory of the National Trust and some question what on earth the Trust is doing organising such a campaign, the stamping ground of the likes of the CPRE (who have been left miles behind in all this), especially as the Trust gets involved in a small way with housing developments of its own (but then they will be sensitive middle-class ones, the kind that don't count in this debate).
What really troubles me, and I didn't really express this coherently at the briefing, is that I think the existing planning regime is already a developer's charter and not a very good one at that. It's delivered millions of tiny, crap homes, designed by morons, built by penny-pinching spec housebuilders, and located on dreadful sites next to motorways and by-passes. And I feel almost any attempt at shaking up our present diabolical system has to be welcomed.
The problem is that the NPPF is a leap in the dark. With its emphasis on localism, and neighbourhood plans (hardly anyone knows what these are), not to mention "sustainable development", it asks more questions than it answers. But just to assume, as the Trust have done, that its very looseness will be an excuse to build anything everywhere strikes me as highly unlikely. It might have been, twenty or thirty years ago, but now we are in a very different era. Barratt's are not going to pitch up, all of a sudden, and build a 50-home estate in every village between Somerset and Suffolk just because NPPF calls the existing village envelope boundary system into question. There's no demand, and there's no money.
The clause that really freaks out the National Trust is 130. It states:
130. Local communities through local and neighbourhood plans should be able to identify for special protection green areas of particular importance to them. By designating land as Local Green Space local communities will be able to rule out new development other than in very special circumstances. Identifying land as Local Green Space should therefore be consistent with the local planning of sustainable development and complement investment in sufficient homes, jobs and other essential services. Local Green Spaces should only be designated when a plan is prepared or reviewed, and planned so that they are capable of enduring beyond the end of the plan period.
If I read this right, it means that the old village boundaries will be consigned to the dustbin and, in their place, villages will be able to have their own mini-green belts, decided locally. I see this as a really interesting development, and one that is of great potential interest to selfbuilders. For those of us who support good, appropriate building and not just the current craze for town cramming, I see this as a really positive step. And I feel an urge to criticise the National Trust for being so ideologically hidebound that they can't or won't see this. A return to the status quo (which seems to be what they want) is to ignore the damage that has been done by our planning system which encourages big land deals between developers and planners, and shuts out the little people. At least NPPF is making a stab at turning this on its head.
If their campaign to neutralise NPPF turns out to be as successful as they hope, it will set back the cause of sustainable building in this country for decades to come.
Calm down, Brinkley. No need to rant. It was only a blogger's briefing.