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Right genre, wrong reference

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This government seems to want us to conduct our relations in the world of science fiction. Of course, that helps if you prefer policy development by assertion rather than being troubled by facts or evidence.

It was bad enough that communities secretary Eric Pickles reminded me of a Sontaran.

Now we have local government minister Brandon Lewis quoting Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in support of his decision to continue forcing councils to publish details of planning applications and highways notices in local newspapers.

The last government was completely wrong in deciding against removing statutory requirements to publish notices in newspapers.

Councils are being forced to waste vast sums of taxpayers’ money to subsidise local newspapers. In nearly 40 years of local and parliamentary representation, I can’t remember a single person who has discovered a planning or highway proposal from the statutory notice.

Actually, the position has got worse since the 2009 review. Local newspaper print sales have continued to drop - even in the big cities readership is now less than 20% of the population.

The same newspapers claim that their business case is now based on web access, supported by online advertising. Just as the national newspapers are rushing to put web access behind a paywall, it will not be long before the local print media follows suit. But do any local newspapers actually put online the statutory notices that councils have been forced to pay them to publish?

Mr Lewis does well to link Hitchhiker’s Guide to planning policies. It’s just that he quoted the wrong extract.

Planning minister Nick Boles is well cast as the local planning officer in an exchange with Arthur Dent, when his house is about to be demolished:

“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

“As soon as I heard I went round to see them. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”

“But the plans were on display…”

“I had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But you found the notice?”

“Yes. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

I suspect that in the coming months, there will be many people following Arthur Dent’s example and throwing themselves to the ground in front of the bulldozers that Mr Boles has unleashed.

The government’s National Planning Policy Framework is just a year old. In its draft form, the all-party communities and local government committee gave the NPPF a real mauling.

We were quite clear that the default ‘yes’ to development was likely to result in unsustainable development and that the absence of a specific reference to ‘brownfield first’ would result in ‘greenfield first’.

We were pleased when we were told that 30 of our 35 recommendations had been adopted. Most commentators welcomed the outcome, although a few sceptics - the National Trust and the Daily Mail - remained cautious.

They’ve been proved correct. Planning and housing changes announced in the Budget have apparently led Mr Boles to privately promise property developers that planning laws will be liberalised again within weeks to allow them to begin a housebuilding boom. He wants to make it easier for property owners to do some things “without having to ask for permission”. He has admitted that new developments are “quite likely to be ugly” and will put pressure on the local infrastructure with few obvious benefits to local communities.

At a local level, the fact that developers are simply asserting that brownfield sites are ‘not viable’ is already forcing councils to bring forward more greenfield development sites to meet their statutory obligations. We might well ask what is happening to the sites where there is already permission to build a total of 400,000 homes.

Mr Pickles is telling the Daily Telegraph: “Trust me: I won’t let the bulldozers wreck Middle England.” One claim you should never trust is: “I’m from the planning department and I’m here to help you.” Or after another round of cuts perhaps it should be: “I used to be from the planning department and I used to be able to help you.” Beware of the Leopard.

Clive Betts (Lab), chair, communities and local government select committee

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