Too few homes built, too much countryside lost

I have an article in this week’s Country Life about the impact of the Government’s planning reforms. I was not going to reproduce it as I have already blogged about CPRE’s recent report, but I was irritated to read Nick Boles’s comment in a recent House of Commons debate that ‘some of the claims made in the recent report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England were simply false and based on a spurious reading of very partial evidence’. I have written to Nick asking him to substantiate that claim. In the meantime, it is worth repeating again: although the Government has made some welcome improvements to planning policy recently, much more needs to be done if the countryside is going to be protected from unnecessary damage. Here is my article.


The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is two years old, and proving to be a rather trying toddler. It was introduced with the aim of simplifying the planning system and putting local people in control. More houses would be built, we were told, but they would be built with consent, not imposed from above.

The reality has been rather different. CPRE’s new report, Community Control or Countryside Chaos? is based on an analysis of 29 local plans and over 70 decisions on major planning applications. It provides plenty of powerful evidence that the NPPF is resulting in greenfield development while derelict sites within towns and cities go to waste.

Our evidence is so strong that the Planning Minister, Nick Boles, resorted to describing  the report as ‘inaccurate, exaggerated and based on a spurious analysis of the facts’ – a statement that was rather undermined when, according to The Times, ‘his spokesman declined to give details of the alleged inaccuracies’.

But the facts speak for themselves. Take the issue of using previously developed, brownfield land before building in the countryside. The ‘brownfield-first’ was a cornerstone of planning policy for over 20 years, but was removed from the NPPF. Now only a quarter of councils outside London have a policy of using brownfield sites first, and several councils that have tried to introduce such a policy have been prevented from doing so by the Government. In Salford, the local authority identified enough brownfield land to accommodate 19,000 houses, but the council has been made to review its Green Belt and build in countryside around Salford.

The report also gives examples of what former environment Minister David Heath has called villages ‘under siege’. Where a local authority does not have an up to date local plan – and almost half do not – there is a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’, so developers are circling round market towns and villages, eyeing up the most profitable sites in the knowledge that the local authority cannot stop them. ‘Far from empowering local communities,’ said Heath, ‘we are disenfranchising them from decisions that will have the most profound impact on their local areas.’   

Kentford in Suffolk, population 420, faces proposals for 340 more houses. Warton in Lancashire and Norton St. Philip in Somerset may double. In Oxfordshire, the plan is effectively to increase every settlement by a third by 2031. Oxford City is planning 30,000 new houses. The Vale of White Horse is proposing 1400 houses in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and 1700 in the Green Belt. Rural West Oxfordshire, which includes the Prime Minister’s constituency, had 43,200 households in 2011; it is proposed to add 13,200 households in the next 17 years.

This is about economic growth, not meeting people’s housing needs. And the housing targets are totally fanciful. Who is going to build the new homes? Not Councils, which used to build over half the country’s new housing. And not the big house builders: they have neither the ability nor desire to build on the scale the Government demands. So local authorities are releasing huge areas of land for housing, and the house builders are cherry picking the most profitable bits, greenfield sites in the countryside, and leaving the more difficult town centre sites. They are not building more houses, just more houses in the countryside.

This is the worst of both words: too few new homes; too much lost countryside. And tempers are fraying. A leaked letter to the Prime Minister from the Conservative leader of Guildford Council in Surrey encapsulates the mood in many shire counties. Stephen Mansbridge complains of being forced ‘to build and excessive number of new homes, even on our Green Belt… We understand the need to build more homes and we are prepared to take difficult decisions in order to achieve this, but you have largely removed our ability to choose how we accomplish this task.’

We hear similar complaints from across the country. But there are glimmers of hope. As the economy picks up, the Government may be less desperate for development at any price. It has started to listen, and even to make some small but helpful changes to planning guidance.

But it will have to make much bigger changes if it is to heed the words of a normally loyal backbench Conservative MP, Nadhim Zahawi, who warned that unless it changed course, ‘the physical harm it is doing to our countryside will become the defining legacy of this Government’.

CPRE will keep up the pressure.


1 Response to “Too few homes built, too much countryside lost”

  1. 1 Mr Eric Colley April 8, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Why will the Government not force the large developers into opening their land bank books to show how much brownfield land they are holding back on developing in preference to using virgin greenfield sites. The developers will always choose the sites that will realise the most profit with the least effort in order to appease their shareholders and ultimate Chairman and Board and also their balance sheet.
    Why are Local Planning Authorities not made to produce an Audit of all public owned Brownfield sites and derelict public owned buildings and also then produce a list of the number of properties that this Audit will generate before resorting to rubber stamping the favoured use of greenfield sites within their local Authority.

    Brownfield First should be the order of the day.

    Eric Colley (Lofthouse Resident)

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