Ministers stripped out 95 per cent of Britain’s ‘impenetrable’ planning laws yesterday but immediately caused fears for the future of the countryside.
Planning Minister Greg Clark brushed aside opposition from conservation groups to signal the biggest shake-up in the planning system for decades.
He said the changes, which came into force immediately, would help provide the jobs and homes needed to get the economy moving again.
A series of concessions divided opponents of the changes yesterday.
Councils will be encouraged to bring brownfield sites back into use before giving permission to build on green fields.
They will also be expected to give priority to town centre sites.
And Mr Clark said the new planning regime would recognise the ‘intrinsic value of the countryside’, as well as strengthening protections for the Green Belt and national parks.
Councils have also been given a year to come up with detailed plans on where they want to see development.
But ministers have refused to back down over their controversial ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’, which means planning applications will have to be approved unless they can be shown to be against the ‘collective interest’.
The National Trust, which led the opposition to the reforms, said the revised guidance had a ‘better tone and balance’ than the original.
But Ruth Davis, from Greenpeace, said: ‘The reforms were based on a flawed assumption… that we can boost the economy by uprooting decades of protection for the natural habitat and the countryside. This is misguided, dangerous and wrong.’
The Woodland Trust said it was ‘severely disappointed’ with the final document. Chief executive Sue Holden said: ‘Ancient woodland remains significantly threatened under this new framework.’
But business leaders welcomed the changes as a boost for the economy.
Experts claim the bureaucratic planning system costs the economy up to £3billion a year. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said: ‘Being able to develop new shops, houses and factories is crucial to delivering economic growth, and too often planning regulations have prevented that. Britain needs to get building again, and these reforms allow that to happen – as long as they are followed through.’
The radical changes replace more than 1,300 pages of complex planning guidance with a single streamlined document running to just 50 pages.
A string of top-down targets imposed by Labour have also been scrapped. Instead, ministers are now urging local communities to take responsibility for planning in their own areas.
Critics have warned that the move will lead to a string of court challenges as developers, conservation groups and local campaigners line up to test the new law.
Labour said the changes were a recipe for ‘chaos and confusion’. Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn said: ‘The Government’s planning reforms could cause widespread delay and chaos with many developments held up while the courts decide how to interpret this radically new and untested approach.
This would both harm the house building we desperately need and put our countryside and green spaces at risk of unwanted development.’
But Mr Clark insisted ministers had listened to the Government’s critics, adding: ‘The framework guarantees robust protections for our natural and historic environment, and goes further by requiring net improvements to put right some of the neglect that has been visited on us.’
‘Charter for wind farms’ welcome by Greens
Campaigners fear the new planning rules could be a charter for wind farms.
The guidelines spell out a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’, which includes a very strong emphasis on renewable energy.
Among the 12 ‘core principles’ which must be considered by planning officials, is a commitment to ‘encouraging’ green power projects.
The provision was welcomed by green groups, but critics fear it could undermine fierce local opposition to wind turbines.
Tory MP David Davis said if councils designate certain areas for wind farms it could ‘encourage speculative activity’ by developers. He said: ‘The problem becomes sheer concentration in the areas where they are allowed. If a village raises money to get a lawyer and oppose a wind farm, and they fail, more companies come in and try.
‘Instead of one development a mile away, there are two or three or four 400ft monstrosities on your doorstep. It’s like a new religion. They should be offshore where they don’t bother anybody.’
Tory MP Chris Heaton Harris, who wrote a letter to the Government on behalf of 105 MPs opposing wind farms, added: ‘If councils get their local plans in order and quickly, they can make it very difficult for some wind farms to be built.
‘But without a strong local plan they are effectively left naked and in a very vulnerable state. The proof will be in the pudding.’
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