Bill Bryson joins fight in countryside planning row

American writer and countryside campaigner concerned that shakeup may weaken planning laws to allow for development

Britain's leading countryside campaigner, Bill Bryson, has joined a growing wave of opposition to government moves to shake up planning laws.

As groups from the National Trust to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds line up against proposals to ease new development across the country, Bryson told the Observer he was deeply concerned by the direction of policy.

"The government's good intentions risk being undermined by the talk of economic growth at any cost," said the American writer, who champions the English countryside and is president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). "We are deeply worried to learn that environmental laws are regarded as red tape and that the planning system might be weakened to allow for more development."

Bryson's intervention in the increasingly bitter debate came as countryside, amenity and environmental groups stepped up pressure on the planning minister, Greg Clark, to rethink the proposals. On Saturday Clark told the BBC's Today programme that he was willing to discuss details with groups such as the National Trust, but said there would be no U-turn. Critics believe that a new emphasis on development will lead to the loss of green space and unjustified speculative development.

The National Trust's director general, Fiona Reynolds, is to ask all of its 3.8 million members to sign a petition and to lobby their MPs to force the coalition to "completely rethink the draft planning laws". So far around 12,000 people have signed the trust's petition. If more than 100,000 people sign, it is likely to force a Commons debate.

After making a high-profile U-turn over plans to sell off parts of Britain's forests, the government can ill afford another embarrassing confrontation with voters over the future of the British countryside. Clark, who emerged bruised from a stormy Newsnight debate last Thursday with Jeremy Paxman and National Trust chairman Sir Simon Jenkins, offered an olive branch to his critics, who also include Friends of the Earth, the Theatres Trust and the Bat Conservation Trust.

He told the Observer: "I would like to sit down with the groups who have an interest in drafting suggestions and talk to them. I am open to their suggestions about drafting [changes], and I am very willing to see their suggestions."

Concern about the biggest changes in the planning system for 60 years centres on a controversial presumption in favour of development which could be used to overrule community attempts to protect their land.

The national planning policy framework document (NPPF) states: "[The local protection designation] will not be appropriate for most green areas or open space."

Naomi Luhde-Thompson, planning officer at Friends of the Earth, said: "It is clear that the government does not want green space designations used to prevent development in open countryside. Rather than the community being empowered to protect their open space, the draft NPPF provides a way for developers to build on this space by demonstrating the need for and benefits of their development."

Local authorities said they were concerned that the 47% of councils which have not yet drawn up a core plan will be given only six months to assess, identify and designate land needed for housing, shops, roads and industry. In addition, all councils will have to identify present housing needs and make a further 20% of land available.

Swaths of the Lake District, Yorkshire, Cornwall, Lancashire and the Midlands have no plan. "We don't have the time or the resources to do this adequately," said a spokesman for one northern Labour council, which asked not to be identified. "We are being rushed into making decisions that will affect our communities for years."

Under the coalition's proposed presumption in favour of development, councils will be required to grant planning permission to any development where a local plan is "absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date".

A Local Government Association spokesman said: "Our concern is that the government is setting a six-month limit for councils to have plans up and running. Anyone with a plan not in place by then will not have safeguards against development."

Shaun Spiers, director of the CPRE, said the unintended consequences of this haste would be "greater confusion, uncertainty for the development industry and anxiety for communities".

There is also concern among critics that the government is encouraging developers to move on to greenfield, out-of-town sites, and no longer prioritising "brownfield" sites.

"There are 160,000 acres of [brownfield] land available for development, enough for more than three million new homes. There are also nearly 740,000 empty homes in this country, a quarter of them in London and the south-east. Successive governments have promised action to bring them into use, with little success," said London assembly member Nicky Gavron.

According to data in the NPPF impact assessment report, most development proposals are approved. Approvals were 87% in 2009-10, and 80% of those that went to appeal were also approved.


John Vidal, environment editor

The GuardianTramp

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