I know Telegraph readers don’t want land grabs and free-for-alls. I understand your concerns. No-one who loves our idyllic and precious English countryside wants to see the sword of Damocles hanging over it. Myself included.
By definition, planning is a controversial topic, beset by different interest groups. I want to set out what the government is doing, and as importantly, what we aren’t doing. Firstly, our reforms safeguard our glorious green spaces and countryside. They protect the green belt - that vital green lung that prevents urban sprawl. And they defend Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and other important environmental designations. Nothing will change that today. Nothing will change that tomorrow.
Secondly, we are making the most of every single square inch of brownfield land, every vacant home and every disused building. And, as the Chancellor said in last week’s Budget, we’re going even further, by making it easier to convert empty and redundant buildings into homes to help rejuvenate high streets and market towns. We’re also helping rural communities by giving them powers to transform old barns and outhouses into new rural homes and businesses, benefiting inhabitants and their local area, without compromising the countryside.
Thirdly, we are using the National Planning Policy Framework to make the Local Plan king. The Framework condensed 1,000 pages of confusing and inaccessible Whitehall planning guidance into 50 pages, with the goal of making the planning system more accessible, rather than the preserve only of council officers, lawyers and Non-Government Organisations.
Local Plans will be complemented by new neighbourhood plans, where local communities wish to adopt them. Decentralisation is about devolving power downwards - not just to town halls, but to parishes and neighbourhoods below them.
But putting local planning centre stage, the intention is to let residents, not remote Whitehall officials, decide where the new homes and the new businesses go, and which cherished sites need to be protected. We have not done this overnight. These powers came into effect a year ago today - as soon as the framework was published, and they are already starting to work. Many councils have begun to wake up to the benefits of localism, and the Planning Inspectorate is helping councils to finalise their local plans and support decision making.
Seven out of 10 councils have already published plans and the remainder are making good progress. Wherever a local plan is drawn up, consulted on and agreed by local residents it will take automatic precedence over the presumption of sustainable development. That’s real localism in action.
Suggestions that the lack of a plan will lead to a charge of concrete mixers rolling into the English countryside are completely unfounded. Even in cases where there is no local plan new development will still have to conform to the framework, which clearly sets out that it must be well located, well designed and sustainable.
In truth authorities have had many years to put in place local plans. But the reality is they seldom saw it as worthwhile. Six years after the 2004 Planning Act, only 1 in 7 councils had adopted Core Strategies. Why? Big government took the big decisions. There was simply no motivation for them to do it. And who can forget the resented, top-down Regional Spatial Strategies? Forcing houses on places and green belt deletions on places that didn’t want them. If there is one big change in planning today - it’s that we are finally consigning the last of that regional rubbish to the dustbin of failed policies - where they belong.
Despite lobbying from all sides - from developers to environmental groups, the framework has been quietly working and getting on with the job. We’re seeing the right decisions made. Less appeals, less challenges, and less overturning. Fewer planning appeals, means more local decision-making. Nearly 9 in 10 planning applications are now approved - a 10 year high. There will always be exceptional cases where things don’t go according to plan, but they should not be used as evidence that the system is failing. In fact more than 2,300 major residential decisions have already been taken successfully since the introduction of the framework and that number is rising daily.
It’s also important to remember that the changes to our planning system go far beyond the National Planning Policy Framework and they’ve been happening since May 2010. We’ve abolished top down bureaucracy with the introduction of the Localism Act, which has given neighbourhoods greater powers to do things for themselves through neighbourhood planning, whether that’s taking over community assets, adopting the community right to build or stopping unwanted garden grabbing.
And we shouldn’t forget something else either. All of the work we’ve done so far has 2 ultimate goals, to protect our glorious countryside but also to encourage responsible building. England had become a place where people couldn’t get a house for love nor money. House building had fallen to its lowest peacetime rates since the 1920s. Families were trapped in ‘rabbit hutch’ homes too small for their needs, forced by Whitehall density targets and parking limits. Where tenants couldn’t move on. Where ailing infrastructure held us back. This government won’t give up on helping people with aspirations to get on.
We couldn’t bequeath such an inheritance to the next generation. We couldn’t ignore that. Because we don’t just want to be admired for our great heritage. We want to build the well-designed family homes with gardens and parking that people want: housing that stands the test of time. Our groundbreaking reforms will help us achieve that aim. They will help us forge anew our reputation in the world. And they will help us leave a legacy that our children, and their children after them, can be rightly proud of.