Be positive: the Housing Minister’s challenge to CPRE

A week ago the Housing Minister Gavin Barwell gave CPRE’s annual lecture – you can read it here and view it here. The theme of the speech was familiar: how can we build more new homes? But it was a great improvement on similar speeches I have heard, for two reasons.

First, it was not based on the assumption that planning restrictions are the main reason we build too little. Pointing out that English councils granted planning permissions for 277,000 new homes in the year to September 2016, Barwell said: “If I was confident that all those homes would be built quickly we wouldn’t have needed to publish a housing white paper. But I’m not confident. There’s a large and growing gap between homes being granted planning permission and homes being started. And people can’t live in a planning permission.”

So the focus of the speech was not how to weaken planning but how to get homes built – ‘fixing our broken housing market’. Hurrah for that. CPRE has been banging on for ages about how the business model of the big builders militates against a step change in output; about the need to help small builders; about the merits of custom build; and about why we should not fixate on numbers alone, but also consider quality, affordability and, in particular, the special needs of rural areas. It was good to hear many of these themes rehearsed in the Minister’s speech.

The second reason for liking Gavin Barwell’s speech was that he engaged with legitimate concerns about development. In the weeks leading up to the White Paper newspaper commentators were in full cry, urging Ministers to ‘take on the NIMBYs’, tear up Green Belt policy and override any local opposition to development. That strategy did not work too well last time it was tried and I doubt it could ever work in England. Weakening planning controls and ignoring local opinion leads to fights, delays and ill feeling. It does not result in more houses.

Ministers sensibly ignored the commentariat’s advice. Indeed, the White Paper is the first government initiative on housing and planning for years that was not cooked up in some anti-planning, anti-conservation London think-tank, and it is all the better for that. Ministers have listened to a wider range of opinion, including CPRE’s, as Gavin Barwell was kind enough to point out:

“We’ve not only listened to your input, we’ve taken it on board. Any honest assessment of the housing white paper will quickly spot the marks of your influence – whether it’s the protection of the green belt, our opposition to speculative development or our insistence on community involvement in planning and design…. CPRE have long argued that failures in the housing market can’t be solved simply by releasing more land for building. The white paper clearly and unequivocally agrees with that view…. Some greenfield land will be required for new homes, but our focus is on developing brownfield land – specifically in those parts of the country where additional homes are urgently required.” And so on.

All this (welcome) flattery had a purpose: “We have listened to you on housing and planning issues and we’re implementing many of your ideas, but in return we want your help. I’m delighted that your leadership clearly recognise the urgent requirement to fix the broken housing market. Now I want those words to be matched with practical, positive action…. We won’t always agree on every single issue, but I challenge you to work alongside us, so together we can both preserve our precious countryside and build the homes we so desperately need…”

I will come back to this challenge, but as is the way with these things, CPRE’s initial delight with the White Paper has turned to worry as our experts, trained in planning and suspicion, go through it in detail. There are lots of concerns and queries. Here are two big ones.

Housing targets

Nothing destroys faith in the planning system more than undeliverable housing targets often inflated by ludicrously ambitious aspirations for economic growth. Without a system that delivers reasonable housing targets and prevents unscrupulous developers gaming the system, it will be very hard to persuade countryside campaigners to agree to greenfield development. We expect a further consultation on this issue shortly. It is hard to know how to view the White Paper before we know what is going to happen with housing targets.

Green Belt

The fact that the White Paper did not announce a weakening of Green Belt policy is very welcome. Indeed, Ministers say it has been strengthened. But reviewing local plans every five years could compromise the Green Belt’s permanence (Gavin Barwell addressed this concern – see here, 19.03).

And the Government seems to have moved away from its previous position that the Green Belt is ‘sacrosanct’ (Sajid Javid) and that housing demand does not constitute the ‘exceptional circumstances’ that would justify redrawing Green Belt boundaries (Brandon Lewis). The line now seems to be that if all other means of meeting housing need have been exhausted, Green Belt land must be released for development. So we are back to the importance of realistic housing targets and a proper distinction between need and demand.

In his speech Gavin Barwell said: “I fully accept that we cannot meet the demand of everyone who would like to live in the Cotswolds, the Peak District or the Yorkshire Dales.” But what about those who want to live in the Green Belt in or around Surrey or Hertfordshire or Oxford or Cambridge or Chester or Leeds etc.? For that matter, what about those wanting to live in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – AONBs are also under increasing threat as a result of high housing targets and a confusion between need and demand.

Conclusion

CPRE is consulting its 43 county branches and eight regional grroups, and we will be making a full response to the White Paper consultation in due course. We will also keep talking to Ministers and officials. I hope some of our concerns will be allayed.

But I also hope that nationally and locally, CPRE will respond positively to Gavin Barwell’s challenge to support more house building.

We are unlikely to become cheerleaders for house building on greenfield sites. That is not the role of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (strapline: ‘standing up for your countryside’).

But as well as saying “no” to inappropriate development, CPRE has always acknowledged that some development will take place in the countryside. Our role then is to ensure the best possible development, aesthetically, socially and in terms of its environmental sustainability. Our first statement of aims and objects in 1926 stated: “It is not intended to object to the reasonable use and development of rural areas: it is the abuse and bad development of such areas that requires restriction…. It is not intended that the CPRE shall be a merely negative force. It is part of its policy to promote suitable and harmonious development.”

And Patrick Abercrombie, in The Preservation of Rural England, the manifesto that launched CPRE’s, wrote: “It should be possible for a just balance to be struck between conservation and development; that certain parts must be preserved intact and inviolate but that others can, after suffering a change, bring forth something new but beautiful, provided a conscious effort is made.”

We have become too used to the idea that all new building must, to use a favourite word of CPRE’s pioneers, “despoil” the countryside, and that the planning system is a battleground rather than a means of ensuring good quality sustainable development, with multiple benefits. The vision set out in the White Paper, though not perfect from CPRE’s point of view – it would be surprising if it were – is a considerable improvement on what went before. It gives hope that we can leave the trenches and try to shape developments and support necessary housing, while continuing to oppose the indefensible (‘executive homes’ in the Green Belt or AONBs spring to mind).

Currently, most CPRE branches and other countryside campaigners feel that the main power they have in the planning system is to stop bad stuff happening. I hope the changes set out in the White Paper will give more scope to shape development. That will require some compromises, accepting some loss of countryside, getting behind sustainable urban extensions, possibly even supporting new settlements and Green Belt reviews. This will not be easy – it certainly will not be easy in campaigning terms, as it is always easier to campaign with a simple message than a nuanced one – but it could deliver much better outcomes than we currently see across the country: exhausting planning battles; villages under siege; Green Belt eroded without proper reviews; shoddy, poor quality, car-dependent developments plonked next to towns and villages across England.

Surely we can do much better than that? I will be leaving CPRE at the end of May to join Green Alliance as executive director, so I will be watching from the sidelines how CPRE responds to Gavin Barwell’s challenge to demonstrate that it is not “merely a respectable front for nimbyism – that behind your public objectives is a private and unrelenting refusal to accept any kind of new development in rural areas”. But everything I have heard from CPRE’s national trustees and staff, and, perhaps more importantly our branches, suggests that if it is persuaded that integrity has been restored to the planning system, CPRE will rise to this challenge.

7 Responses to “Be positive: the Housing Minister’s challenge to CPRE”


  1. 1 nickjn February 27, 2017 at 11:44 am

    Gavin Barwell is just one more minister of state on the long political conveyor belt. His conciliatory tone is the uttering of one man; the White Paper will be subject to change. There is to be further consultation on a standard model for the calculation of the so-called ‘Objectively’ Assessed Need for housing where no doubt current commercial practitioners will fight like rats in a sack to protect their methodology and lucrative contracts with local authorities; what “objective” system is likely to come from that little bun fight?

    What residents need to see is substantive change to the NPPF, a document originally drafted in secret away from Whitehall by representatives of the development lobby. It’s weasel words of “sustainable development” belie its content. Local authorities are no longer required to act as community gatekeepers in the planning system, they are required to positively promote economic growth like local development corporations, using the same commercial arguments.

    The NPPF pressurises local authorities to underpin Local Plans with local economic growth targets, that come mainly from London-based economic forecasting bodies that appear to have a ‘revolving door’ with HM Treasury when it comes to recruiting their economists. From a government that apparently eschews central planning, the NPPF is a gross hypocrisy. The removal of the economic growth requirement from the NPPF would be a start in convincing the groups of residents that have formed in Green Belt areas around the country to oppose the grim loss of Green Belt and Grade 1, 2 and 3A agricultural land to the bulldozers of the major house builders.

    Local authorities themselves have representatives on shadowy Local Enterprise Partnerships, organisations affirmed by government with un-elected and unaccountable boards used to funnel government ‘dark’ money dressed up as “Growth Deals” into areas that cross district boundaries and set global housing targets, no doubt with the lip-smacking approval of the local councillors, university representatives and house builders that sit on their boards and committees, with no reference to local communities. For example, LEPs should not have the capability to pass government money directly to local authorities to enable them to buy land to create Suitable Alternative Green Space to enable housing to be built in the Green Belt in damaging proximity to protected habitats.

    Removing the economic growth accelerator aspects of the NPPF and its associated NPPG would be a start. However, us residents out here, in continual confrontation with our local authorities as creators and implementers of Local Plans and planning decisions driven by the NPPF simply don’t believe the Green Belt is safe.

  2. 2 Alasdair Daw February 27, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    From our perspective, in a GB LA, the white paper appears to be very bad news.

    The change to ‘last resort’ means OAN must be met and therefore most GB LAs ‘must’ use GB rather than ‘may’ as at present.

    Our interpretation – http://www.billericayactiongroup.org.uk/uploads/8/3/4/5/83451222/bag_thoughts_on_the_govt_white_paper_20170217.pdf

    Best wishes

    • 3 sspiers February 27, 2017 at 2:29 pm

      Alastair, I know your views will be shared by many in CPRE. Your excellent blog – recommended reading – raises some of the issues we’ll have to explore during the consultation period.

      In his speech, and in interviews and speeches around the launch of the White Paper, Gavin Barwell made clear that Green Belt boundaries could only be redrawn in “exceptional circumstances”. Exceptional means exceptional and as your blog suggests, if Green Belt councils (particularly around London) have to accommodate ‘objectively assessed need’, depending on how it is assessed, Green Belt boundary changes will become the norm rather than not the exception. I do not believe that is the intention of the Government, but it will be the outcome unless we have realistic housing targets.

      Last week at Prime Minister’s Questions Theresa May was asked about the Green Belt and gave a clearly rehearsed answer: “The Government is very clear that the Green Belt must be protected. We are very clear that boundaries should only be altered when local authorities have fully examined all other reasonable options, and if they do go down that route then they should compensate by improving the quality or accessibility of the remaining Green Belt land so that that can be enjoyed.” It would have been good to hear her refer to “exceptional circumstances” rather than the far weaker “when local authorities have fully examined all other reasonable options”. But that might be putting too much weight on one answer. DCLG Ministers have made clear that the exceptional circumstances test remains, and they say they have strengthened it, so we need to hold them to that promise.

  3. 4 Jon Reeds February 28, 2017 at 11:23 am

    You’re right, of course, to urge people to be positive about the positive things in the white paper, though I fear some of what is positive about it is simply that it has stopped making things worse.
    Nevertheless, there are genuine positives in it if you hunt for them, such as an acceptance that Whitehall got it badly wrong when it abolished minimum densities for residential development in 2010. It’s just a cautious toe in the water at present but would repay a vigorous, and certainly positive, response.
    There’s an interesting proposal to amend the NPPF at paragraph 1.53 which says “make efficient use of land and avoid building homes at low densities where there is a shortage of land for meeting identified housing requirements”.
    Taken literally, this would mean that the low-densities with which our precious housing land is squandered at present would have to end more or less. After all, local authorities are only supposed to plan for house building where they identify housing requirements. If there aren’t, why build at all?
    No doubt Whitehall would wriggle out of this by claiming it was talking about its much abused “five-year supplies” which we all know are often fairly bogus.
    But being positive is difficult after reading this morning’s DCLG response to Adam Zerny’s petition to reform the NPPF: “Local communities are not forced to accept large housing developments. Communities are consulted throughout the Local Plan process and on individual planning applications…” etc., etc., Much more in a similar vein.
    https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/177333
    Now then, count to 10 and take several long, deep breaths…

  4. 5 Lewis Owens February 28, 2017 at 8:23 pm

    The issue is minister after minister talk the talk but their actions or more importantly lack of action leads many in rural areas to see the words as nothing more than well rehearsed rhetoric. Not once did he mention the obscene shift in home ownership to wealthier individuals and corporations, which are primarily restricting availability significantly of new builds and established houses to the local people. This is not based on needs ( we have enough houses), this is based on driving investment under perceived need. If need was critical then I would expect to see large increases in social housing. This has and still appears to be about wealth distribution and propping up an otherwise depressed economy to balance the books and ensure the donations keep rolling in. NPPF has been hijacked and to date not one government official has done anything to address its clear and apparent holes for exploitation. That tells me far more than mere words from a prepared speech for a critical and influential audience.

  5. 6 Mike March 10, 2017 at 7:53 am

    In my area of the West it is only brave and determined local people who are standing up the developers where they can. The wildlife and conservation organisations etc are nowhere to be seen. Often these organisations get too cosy to developers and are prepared to rubber stamp rubbish deals. So many of our market towns in the West Country are being swallowed by mass ranks of new commuter homes which are decimating the ranges of urban and semi urban wildlife. Where once there was space and gardens for wildlife, now there is virtually nothing left. Once common birds in towns are now hardly seen. New homes are designed to have small, maintenance free gardens and ‘landscaping’ and wildlife enhancements are just a paper exercise which never comes out the way it is described in the plans.

    Vast amounts of prime agricultural land (which we will never get back) is being swallowed up along the M4 corridor and beyond, cutting off wildlife ranges and cutting out green spaces over huge areas. The areas around dual carriage ways into towns and cites here are also being eaten up. I see badger after badger and fox after fox killed as the places they once called home are raised to the ground. It is carnage all perpetuated by Labour and Conservative councils at local level.

    The whole situation is a huge train crash. Yet the wildlife and conservation groups have award ceremonies every year and pat each other on the back whilst everything is be decimated. This is not just about the bad choices of politicians nationally, it is about the singular failure of the conservation movement in this country which is sitting on its hands whilst our land and wildlife goes under bulldozers.

    • 7 sspiers March 10, 2017 at 9:01 am

      Mike, many thanks for your comment. CPRE Wiltshire is certainly ‘standing up to the developers’ when proposals are damaging, but the branch (like all CPRE branches) could badly do with more members and volunteers. Local groups which spring up to oppose particular developments can be very effective, but the country does need some development, particularly new housing, and the virtue of CPRE is that we try to influence where development should go, as well as where it shouldn’t.

      As for other conservation groups, CPRE works closely with the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and others, both locally and nationally. I think it’s unfair to characterise them as unwilling to fight for wildlife and nature. They are not as closely involved in the planning system as CPRE, but they do (like the ‘determined local people’ to whom you refer) fight particular developments. One of the problems with the current planning system is that it is so complex, and so loaded against local people (largely because of excessively high housing targets) that CPRE is sometimes the only group represented at public inquiries. I refer to this here: http://www.cpreoxon.org.uk/events/past-events/item/download/816

      So, I don’t think that environmental groups have been bought off – CPRE certainly hasn’t been – and I’m very sorry if that is the local perception. But we need a simpler, fairer system if more people are going to get involved in planning the future of their areas.


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