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My final blog - whither planning?

My final blog - whither planning? Photo: © CPRE

As I complete my last week as Policy and Campaigns Director it seems appropriate to look back on the past 20 years - and more - I’ve spent working for CPRE.

Neil Sinden blogMost prominent in my mind are the changes that have affected the planning system which is still so important for the achievement of many of CPRE’s goals.

First, though, it needs to be said that I will remain a passionate supporter of the vital work that CPRE does and look forward to seeing it go from strength to strength. I feel especially upbeat about this right now, having just ducked out of my last staff planning session which began with a stirring presentation by our Chief Executive Shaun Spiers on our many achievements in recent years – from ensuring brownfield regeneration remains a political priority even in these challenging economic times, to helping to secure the introduction of the plastic bag charge next month (flawed though the details of the scheme are). It is also pleasing that we have had, in my experience, the biggest impact on the approach of all the main political parties to the countryside in the manifestos for the 2015 general election. Now we – or more precisely my illustrious, erstwhile colleagues in CPRE’s policy and campaigns team – need to make sure the Government honours those commitments.

Alongside the exceptional quality of its policy work, what makes CPRE such a powerful force is our network of branches across the country. Local staff and volunteers do sterling, too often unsung and unrewarded, work standing up for the local countryside. It seems they are increasingly the last men – and women – standing at local planning meetings and public inquiries, arguing passionately, often with few resources but great eloquence, for better decisions on development and land use for the wider public benefit, rather than narrow private profit.

Looking back, my overriding concern is that their job has been made immeasurably more challenging due to the shocking ignorance, sometimes outright hostility, that successive Governments have displayed about the planning system. When I first joined CPRE as a junior planning officer in 1991 I can now see I was privileged to be joining the team just as we were beginning to recognise the power of planning as one of the most important tools for achieving environmental objectives. Following Chris Patten’s 1990 Environment White Paper, and the 1991 Planning and Compensation Act, the Department of the Environment, as it then was (don’t get me started on departmental changes but I must say, in passing, the problems began when responsibilities for planning and environmental policy were split between departments with the creation of DEFRA back in 2001), embarked on a wholesale review of national planning policy to ensure more effective and efficient use of our limited land resources. This paved the way for the 'brownfield' first agenda initially promoted by John Gummer as Environment Secretary and then embedded in the early years of the Blair Government, following Lord Rogers’ Urban Task Force report by none other than John Prescott (an underrated champion of the environment if ever there was one). That era wasn’t without its challenges – the growing influence of HM Treasury on the planning debate with its one-eyed focus on economic growth was troubling – but in retrospect it was a stimulating time to be leading CPRE’s planning team.

Where are we now? And what hope do I have for the future of planning? It’s clear that the past few years have been nothing less than tumultuous for planners and the planning system. I don’t think anyone could have objected to the intention of the coalition Government to simplify the planning system and make it more localist. CPRE certainly didn’t: in fact, I recall we advocated neighbourhood planning well before it become enshrined in the Conservative Party manifesto of 2010. But none of us really predicted the chaos that has been unleashed by the ill-considered and highly inadequate National Planning Policy Framework which, despite being in the hands of the eminently sensible Greg Clark, had the fingerprints of HM Treasury all over it.

It could have been a lot worse, of course. CPRE and others were at the forefront of a major campaign to persuade Ministers to think again and secure improvements to the draft NPPF. It was exciting to be part of that campaign. Ultimately, however, while we helped ensure that Green Belt policy remained intact and we managed to secure some significant but hard won improvements to the framework, we have been left with a planning system which is a pale shadow of its former self. We are a long way from having the kind of planning system we need to manage land use change effectively, meet the growing need for more housing, and tackle the looming environmental challenge of climate change.

So what does the future hold? Good campaigners always grasp signs of hope but I genuinely think there is reason to be optimistic. Generally, it’s clear that the public as a whole recognise the beauty of our landscape and the need to take more care in the way we use our limited land resource. They also understand this means that the activities of individuals and the private sector need to be constrained in some way. (Private companies recognise this too – but only it seems when it suits them. I’m not so sure about the Treasury mandarins.) These are the pillars of planning that are denied by the ‘adolescent ideologues’ (a term coined recently by Chris Patten, as it happens, but in another context) who have been responsible for much of the damage done to planning in recent years.

I am confident we are now emerging from this era of the ‘planning deniers’ (although last week’s announcement of yet another developer-led panel on how to speed up local plans doesn’t bode well in the short term). We will soon begin again to build a planning system which is environmentally-driven, well-resourced and which enjoys public and cross-party political support. Its overarching goal will be to help us manage land use more sustainably so this remains the most beautiful country in the world (to use a phrase from this year’s Conservative manifesto). CPRE will no doubt be at the forefront of this project. I will be cheering from the sidelines and also, I hope, contributing to it in a different way.

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24 September 2015

Good campaigners always grasp signs of hope but I genuinely think there is reason to be optimistic.




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