PM’s office seeks to calm planning row

It was just months ago that the government approved its long awaited National Planning Policy Framework; promising it would transform the way development was controlled and permitted in England.

Before publication of the document, known as the NPPF, many people in rural areas worried that it would weaken protection given to the countryside, allowing developers to build over it more easily.

However, a victory seemed to have been won when the NPPF's final draft declared that authorities giving planning permission in the future would have to recognise the 'intrinsic value of the countryside' in taking any decision.

The statement was particularly important in Norfolk where 70pc of the countryside is 'undesignated' - meaning it has no special status such as being greenbelt - and is therefore more vulnerable to development.

But now, with the economy slothful and the government desperately in need of policies to boost growth, the issue of countryside development is back.

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Rural campaigners are fearful again because at the weekend chancellor George Osborne said it was 'ludicrous' that it could take years to get planning decisions concluded in the UK, while the country could not afford to wait for construction generated economic growth.

Meanwhile David Cameron recently penned an article saying house building was crucial to economic recovery, but that it was being stymied by 'paralysis' and 'dithering' in the planning system.

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A major piece of legislation to boost economic growth is expected soon and, with the government's renewed rhetoric, rural campaigners once again fear it will threaten protections for green areas.

Intensity around the debate increased until yesterday when the prime minister's spokesman stepped in to calm the row saying: 'We are not talking about ripping up the planning laws.'

'The problem is at the moment that a decision is made, but it takes a lot of time for that decision to be made. It would be a lot better if we could get projects [decided on] sooner,' he added.

He went on: 'Planning is one of the issues and another issue that is holding things back is financing [for development]. We are looking at whether or not we could do more to help that as well.'

Rather than changing the system again, the spokesman said the government was more interested in looking at whether there was flexibility to boost development within the current NPPF.

In particular he highlighted moves by councils like Cambridge, which has allowed building on protected land as long as land elsewhere is given new protection to balance the loss out.

The spokesman's intervention comes on an issue of great concern to many Tory voters and shortly before a Conservative conference in a month which is crucial to reviving the party's fortunes. But not everyone is completely reassured.

Caroline Davison, planning and campaigns manager for the Campaign to Protect Rural England in Norfolk, said: 'I would certainly like my concerns to be allayed, but this issue seems to keep coming back over and again.

'George Osborne obviously has this sense that the planning system is holding back the economy, but it seems a strange idea. It's not planning that is holding things up.

'There are development projects out there with planning permission but which are not going ahead, it's the state of the economy which is holding development up.'

She added that research by the CPRE had shown brownfield sites were being made available for development across the country faster than they were being used.

Broadland MP Keith Simpson told the EDP: 'My view is that there are a lot of brownfield sites still available. But there is bound to be, looking at the existing plans, some development on greenfield land.

'The pressures are going to be enormous because you have a lot of young people that want to own and rent a property.'

He added: 'But it's not beyond the wit of planners, politicians and rural campaign groups to come up with a plan that accepts some development without destroying the natural beauty that we have.'

Any announcement on planning made in coming weeks would likely come alongside an expected initiative which would see the Treasury provide guarantees for �10bn of investment from housing associations and other developers.

Meanwhile Mr Osborne has already pledged to underwrite �40bn of private investment in infrastructure projects across the country.

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