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The new wars of the shires

The battle over the government’s planning reforms, which ended with a victory for campaigners led by the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, was a very English revolution. The idea that our sky and natural landscape are community assets that nobody – including the state – owns is firmly rooted in the national imagination. Messing with the landscape can be a dangerous political business.

The new reforms, published by the planning minister Greg Clark in March, are the most profound shake-up of the system since the introduction of the green belt in 1947. The idea is to kick-start the economy with a simplified planning system that favours “development”, with constraints added to prevent the countryside being concreted over.

The initial reaction from campaigners was that Clark had recognised the intrinsic value of our “matchless” countryside.

But the real test will be whether the reforms are clear enough in practice. The problem with planning law is that what is deemed “significant harm”
is open to interpretation by inspectors. Clark appears to have won some serious last-minute concessions from the Treasury – ones that George Osborne would never have allowed had his authority not been weakened by his handling of the Budget and a sense that the Tory-led coalition had “lost touch” with core voters.

After writing in the NS last September about my concerns with the draft planning reforms, especially with regards to heritage and the landscape, I met Clark at the Commons. Clark, whose father was a milkman, comes from a very different social background to Osborne and is far more in touch with what Tory voters are thinking, such as those in his constituency of Tunbridge Wells.

When the ill-thought-out draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was released last July, the grass roots felt strongly betrayed by the Conservative elite. Clark should be credited for standing up to Osborne. But on the controversial subject of wind farms, the NPPF remains silent. Placing the divisive subject of wind farms outside the planning system is not politically sensible.

On 19 April, a new rural lobby organisation, National Opposition to Wind Farms, with thousands of members, was launched at the House of Lords, while over 100 MPs wrote to David Cameron in January warning him not to keep Chris Huhne’s target of installing 32,000 turbines on-and off-shore by 2020.

Stormy weather

Campaigners have won the first phase of the battle but it is still unclear to what extent wind farms will be allowed to despoil the countryside and historic locations. What is needed, as English Heritage has long argued, is the reintroduction of the Heritage Protection Bill, combined with a new listings system that gives tightened statutory protection to assets including the 1,500 or so heritage buildings that are open to the public and help contribute over £12.1bn to the economy.

Such a bill is the only way to protect the heritage that makes this country so unique. Decisions such as allowing a wind farm to be built beside the Naseby battle site, or next to the manor house in Ashby St Ledgers where the gunpowder plot was schemed, have done little to reassure critics.

Wasn’t localism meant to return a voice to local communities? The published reforms are a marked improvement on the original draft but until the poison in the planning system – wind turbines – is finally drained, the planning wars of the shires are likely to have an expensive and bloody sequel.

William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s magazine

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master