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Coalition ‘rush to sweep aside planning laws will put countryside in peril’

Ministers have been accused of attempting to rush through radical reforms to planning laws that pose the greatest threat to the countryside since the Second World War.

Under the Coalition’s proposals, a “presumption in favour of sustainable development” will replace the strict limits on building in rural areas that have been in place since the 1940s.

Opponents believe large swathes of unprotected rural England will be opened up to building projects after ministers told towns and villages that they had a “responsibility” to accept new developments.

An unprecedented alliance of leading town planners warns today that the proposed reforms are being introduced with potentially damaging “haste”.

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, 23 former presidents of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) call for a calm discussion of the plans and an end to the “hostility” between ministers and their opponents.

“The Government wants to bring in a new system almost overnight,” they write. “While we recognise this urgency and support the Government’s overall objectives, the unintended consequences of this haste are greater confusion, uncertainty for the development industry and anxiety for communities.”

The proposals have been attacked by leaders of environment and heritage organisations, including the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who fear the Coalition has capitulated to lobbying from house-building firms.

There are also signs of growing political opposition to the reforms, with discontent among Conservative back-bench MPs and vocal criticism from both Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors.

It comes as The Daily Telegraph starts a campaign to protect the countryside from the proposed reforms.

Greg Clark, the planning minister, accused critics last week of behaving with “nihilistic selfishness” because their objections blocked much-needed new homes for young people.

A public consultation on the draft national planning framework began only after MPs broke up for the summer recess and will close on Oct 17, leaving little time for a national discussion, while the Localism Bill is currently passing through Parliament.

The institute, which represents 23,000 town planners, called on ministers to rewrite their plans and offered to host a “summit” at which both the Government and its critics can discuss the way forward instead of making policy “on the hoof”.

The National Trust accused ministers of putting “short-term financial gain ahead of everything else” and “failing to protect the everyday places that local communities love”.

Dame Fiona Reynolds, director of the trust, said vast swathes of green space were under threat. “For many people it is the places on their doorstep that are threatened – the ordinary yet special places that people really value,” she said. “We fear that the proposals are a green light to develop these.”

The trust, which has more than 3.8 million members, has previously campaigned successfully against the Government to save country houses and wildlife habitats, and Coalition plans to sell forests.

Dame Fiona said there was “enormous public support” through social network campaigns against the plans, including an online petition which has been created to put pressure on ministers.

“We fear not only for the wider countryside but also for protected areas,” Dame Fiona added.

The RSPB has warned that wildlife habitats will be destroyed.

Fiona Howie, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said the current proposals represented the biggest overhaul of planning laws since the Second World War.

“It is the biggest reform since the 1947 Town and Country Act which established planning system as we know,” she said. “This huge change in policy will change our landscapes for decades to come.”

Ministers insist that more housing is necessary to prevent growing homelessness and overcrowding and to give young people the opportunity to get on to the property ladder.

Mr Clark told The Daily Telegraph last week that all towns and villages had a “responsibility” to provide housing for residents, arguing that giving more power to local communities would result in better-designed developments.

Most people “recognise that their communities have needs into the future that they want to meet”, he said. “In practice, people are not against development.”