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A dog's breakfast of planning reform

Tony Travers
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Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

Following the government’s defeat at the hands of the countryside over the future of the Forestry Commission, a similarly bitter struggle has emerged about proposed reforms to planning.

The Telegraph and the Guardian agree on this issue, which is an ominous sign for the Department for Communities & Local Government

Ministers have found their desire to create a more pro-development approach to decisions about new homes and business premises, particularly in rural areas, has produced a massive backlash. The Telegraph and the Guardian agree on this issue, which is an ominous sign for the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG).

The National Trust (NT), the Campaign to Protect Rural England and sundry environmental groups have brilliantly aimed their fire at Eric Pickles and Greg Clark. Local government may have had few defences against the ‘executive pay and waste’ onslaught from DCLG but the rural lobby, notably the National Trust, are armed to the teeth. The NT’s chief executive, Dame Fiona Reynolds, has become La Pasionara of the shires.

Ministers cannot complain. They play rough and must expect others to do the same. Many of the government’s policies are put forward in such a way that no one can predict their outcome. Rural lobbyists fear that if they give an inch, the government will take a mile.

Interestingly, the - admittedly weaker - urban lobbyists support their country cousins. Proponents of compact, green cities want to see as much new development as possible within existing built-up areas. Put simply, avoiding sprawl in, say, Wiltshire should mean more redevelopment in Bristol. Essex and Kent can be saved by increasing densities in east London.

Local government leaders are key players in all of this. It is, after all, councils that give planning permission. Even after the impact of the Localism Bill, local government will retain a key role. Moreover, the local government resource review is proposing to provide financial incentives for development.

The coalition has made a dog’s breakfast of planning reform. It has conjured up powerful enemies who have public and media support. The LGA’s new chief executive Carolyn Downs may find one of her first tasks is to help save ministers from any further mauling at the hands of the ‘save the countryside from sprawl’ campaigners.

On this issue, Mr Pickles needs all the friends he can get.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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