Rural campaigners and green activists have called for a new “department of land use” to prevent “piecemeal erosion of the countryside” caused by a lack of joined-up thinking in government.
A group of former ministers, academics, architects and engineers assembled by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) has called for a unified approach to dealing with issues such as Heathrow, the housing crisis, farming, high-speed rail links, power stations and flooding.
The CPRE will this week publish a 41-page pamphlet called “Landlines: why we need a strategic approach to land” in what its chief executive, Shaun Spiers, describes as an attempt to create “a broad coalition” for change.
Among the 14 contributors are Lord Deben, formerly John Gummer, the Conservative environment secretary who created the Environment Agency and national park authorities; Baroness Young, the former chief executive of the environment agency and the RSPB; Baroness Parminter, the Lib Dem environment spokeswoman; Professors Georgina Mace and Ian Bateman; and Sir Terry Farrell, the architect who designed the MI6 building and has worked on countless infrastructure projects, including HS2.
Currently four secretaries of state take major decisions on infrastructure, while the mayor of London and local councils set the planning agenda for regions and counties.
The result, argues CPRE, is a fragmented approach to land use which has resulted in a massive decline in biodiversity, regular flooding, economic imbalances between north and south, increasing pollution and a declining quality of life in cities and countryside.
About 2,000 hectares of green-belt land is developed each year, with 360,000 homes proposed in councils’ local plans. In Wigan, green-belt land is earmarked for a major warehousing and industrial development near the M6.
The CPRE believes a “national land use strategy” is required, but Lord Deben has gone further and called for the creation of a department of land use.
“There’s no hope of sensible land use while planning is imprisoned within the Department for Communities and Local Government, agriculture within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, infrastructure in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and long-term transport planning in the Department for Transport,” Lord Deben writes. “We need a department of land use which would bring the strategic elements of all these together.”
Lord Deben also attacks the existing planning system as “addressing issues which are at best marginal and at worst simply disagreements about taste”.
“Why on earth … should building in the roof space, incorporating a garage, or extending the kitchen be the business of the local council? Neighbours’ objections would be much better dealt with by a system of mediation in which the right to develop would be upheld unless strong evidence of real harm could be adduced.
“By contrast, protecting a conservation area, maintaining the integrity of listed buildings, or stopping incursions into public green space must remain a core part of a local authority’s responsibility.”
In September 2015, Defra announced it was developing a 25-year plan for the environment, a Tory manifesto commitment, although no publication date has been announced.
Belinda Gordon, the CPRE’s head of government and rural affairs, said the rush to “unrestrained economic growth” had led to big decisions being taken in isolation without considering the wider pressures on the land, climate, economy and wellbeing.
“A national land use strategy would bring Treasury and infrastructure officials on board with environmentalists, and replace piecemeal erosion of the countryside with exciting projects and community trust,” she said.
“Green transport networks, natural flood defences, sustainable housing developments, local food systems, more accessible parks: these can all be delivered if we get organisations working to the same ends through a national plan for the land.”
The CPRE’s former policy director, Neil Sinden, catalogues the enormous variety of ways land is classified, and the huge number of bodies and reports that are working on related subjects without working together.
Brexit and a replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy presents an “urgent task of reversing declines in our once common and typical wildlife”, according to Baroness Young. “We must argue with Government to ensure the Treasury doesn’t simply run off with the bulk of the £3 billion currently invested in farming subsidy.”
Sir Terry Farrell wanted cities to have denser housing. “If done the right way … then greater density can mean more parks, gardens and other open spaces and improved public access to all of these,” he writes. “In London I have demonstrated this with projects like King’s Cross goods yard, the Olympic Park and complex at Stratford, and even schemes like Canary Wharf. Where there once was not a tree, where you were not allowed into secure industrial areas, there are now parks, gardens, trees and, above all, public access.”
He also takes aim at the obsession with Heathrow, saying transport hubs “have always taken precedence” over city planning. In discussions about airports in Birmingham, Luton and Heathrow, “again, the ‘bubble’ of air transport planning predominates most of the thinking.”
The lack of joined-up thinking was harming Britain’s prospects, according to Andrew Wescott, head of policy and public affairs at the Institution of Civil Engineers. “Inadequate supply of housing is constraining Britain’s economic opportunities,”, he said, because it creates uncertainty about where people will be living.
“[This] undermines our capacity to plan infrastructure services for the future. A more strategic approach to land use at a national level could help to manage this better.”