Monday, August 15, 2011

Concrete Issues

Just back from France. One thing you notice is just how big it is (4 x UK size) with about the same number of people in it. Which makes all sorts of things a lot easier - building high speed rail links, power stations, other 'grandes projets'. Here, you can't move for planning rules and regs, even when the economy is on its arse.

Or at least till now.

A little-noted bit of news amid the riots was a signal from the Chancellor George Osborne that planning rules are to be relaxed in favour of development. There is to be a 'default' position in favour of house-building. Rather than having to prove a need for a new development, house-builders will only have to point to 'demand'. Beyond the National Parks, the presumption will be in favour of development. No other areas are to be afforded any special protection from the bulldozers. The National Trust are up in arms and see it as the end of the world as we know it.

Are they right? What will Osborne's proposed changes mean for places we all live. I can only speak for Bury St Edmunds, where I live. And cards straight on table, I live in the countryside immediately outside. Like us all, I speak Nimby.

So in Bury, there is already a development plan in the public domain - the ' Vision 2031' which will see thousands of new homes built during the next 20 years to the west, north-west, east and south of the town, as well as certain villages.

Without doubt, Bury will become a' bigger place'. But, some perspective is needed here, not least from those loud voices in our commuity whose own homes were green fields less than 25 years ago. The scale of development this time round is no greater than in the 1960s, 70s and 80s which brought us, respectively, the Horringer Court, Nowton and Moreton Hall estates which now form our 'suburbs'.

In truth, Bury although a 'heritage town', a smaller version of York, Winchester or Cambridge, it has never been a museum piece and has successfully adapted to changing times. And, on the whole, the Councii's 2031 plan isn't a bad attempt to repeat this pattern.

However it is not perfect. The danger signs are already visible. House building has, in the 2031 document, crept into 'special landscape areas', including one a half-mile from me. Before Osborne's announcement, it was difficult to see how this was more than a worry to the people living there and those, like myself, who enjoy that particular small area of landscape.

Today, however, it is not hard to imagine emboldened developers in 2016 or 2020 pointing their bulldozers at other special landscape areas - which are plentiful immediately around Bury (and around me!), forming a Green-Belt in all but name.

But isn't controlling this what the Council is for, I hear you ask? Well, it is today but the truth is that Councils will, under Osborne's changes, be incentivised to be far more permissive than is currently the case, especially cash-strapped councils like St Edmundsbury.

You need to worry about this, wherever you are, if you're not in a town. Councils are currently kept in check by a combination of planning laws and voter-pressure. Take one of those away, and we do risk a free-for-all for the developers and little collective say in how the area is shaped.

And if you want to see what that looks like, go to Ireland, where planning is lax and builders do mostly what they like, free from popular control. Therefore, while we cannot be 'anti development' without, to some extent, being hypocrites (think about what your home once was) , we must, put pressure on our local Councillors to commit in writing to containing future development to that laid out already in agreed local plans (where they exist) - and no more.

Plus we have to ask national politicians to think again before giving carte-blanche to development anywhere. The truth is that development has always to be a balance of economic versus social / environmental concerns - while giving neither the upper hand. Councils need to be arbiters of this - by all means told to process things faster - but not tied to one agenda nor the other.

And we must, somehow differentiate between different types of landscape outside the National Parks and SSIs. Not all Green Fields are the same. Protection must be afforded to our most integral landscapes on a par to that afforded to the Parks.

And act we must. In the absence of comprehensive planning laws, democracy will be the only weapon we have left.

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