Grasping the nettle - March 20th 1998, Planning Magazine
Government actions speak louder than words in the land for housing debate, says Peter Cresswell
There are some envious eyes being cast around in the green belt at the moment. Green belt is no longer sacrosanct, it would seem, as harassed shire county planners investigate other ways of meeting their allocated housing targets.
But, at the same time, the Government - avowedly greener than it's predecessor - does appear to be promising that more development will go on brownfield sites. Environment secretary John Prescott has even stated that he is considering a greenfield development tax. (Planning, 13 March, p3). This would certainly help to even up the imbalance created by higher infrastructure costs and taxes on conversion and redevelopment in existing urban areas.
By no means the only factors involved, these have nonetheless tended to promote dispersal over the years. The question is whether the Government has the will to face down the anguish it will generate from the developer groups, since balancing the equation will increase their costs and decrease their profits. There already seems to be a vast discrepancy between stated intent and final action - witness the government's decision to allow substantial intrusion into limited greenbelt land around Stevenage. This is not the first time the Hertfordshire new town has faced plans for major development - most of it, as now, to the west of the town.
But the provision of 10,000 new dwellings, for perhaps 30,000 people, is not intended primarily for the existing residents of Stevenage. It is the county council's way of trying to meet its allocated target. It means putting a large part of the total in one place, so as to conserve threatened areas elsewhere.
Past experience has shown that this will not work. Other areas go on growing alongside planned developments - like new and expanded towns - because the pressure from outside it there, the dice are financially loaded in favour of opening up the countryside, and because the planning systems operates a general presumption in favour of development.
The nettle has to be grasped. The overall planning framework has to be tackled, otherwise planned developments in particular places will go on adding to the problem. In lowland England - especially along the belt from London to Birmingham and west along the M4 - there is little left of what could be described as countryside - or at least in the term as it was understood 50 or 60 years ago.
There is too much urban intrusion in addition to the advances which towns have made into the surrounding areas; roads, out of town shopping centres, factories, pylons and radio masts, defence establishments, airfields, power stations, reservoirs and leisure parks. These all create visual pollution. Lowland England has no truly tranquil areas left.
A few remote areas represent the last fragments in an urbanised land. It is worth conserving what is left; but to do so will require radical action from this supposedly 'green Government', and stretch far beyond the somewhat pious hopes that development will be directed largely to brownfield sites. In the first place, there should be a general presumption against development outside all urban areas. Combined with this, we will need a series of measures to discourage under-occupancy of housing. There already seems to be a vast discrepancy between stated intent and final action -witness the decision to allow substantial intrusion into the green belt around Stevenage.
The Government must also, as promised, even up the costs for greenfield and brownfield development. And finally, it must do what planning minister Richard Caborn says he will do, namely, move away from the 'predict and provide' philosophy for house building and end the system under which the Governments housing targets are imposed on local councils. This would transform the planning system.
It could actually mark the beginning of a 'new age' - with an end to all the self-fulfilling national and regional population projections and a starting point for local authorities to adopt policies, which realistically meet their own needs. It would also mean that counties like Hertfordshire would no longer have to root around for somewhere to put a huge total of projected household increases, which appear to have been imposed in order to meet an objective of encouraging and accommodating migratory growth.
It would seem that Stevenage would not have to have the growth it is reluctant to take and, indeed, hits pressured semi-rural hinterland cannot sustain. Yet the government has just given it the go ahead. The Government's actions - in doing the wrong thing, or doing nothing at all - speak louder than words. The will to change the planning system for the better and save what little is left of the quality of the rural environment does not seem to be there yet. Back to press index