This article is from the May issue of Total Politics

It might have been a good day to bury bad news, but George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, presenting his third Budget to the House of Commons, obviously decided otherwise.

“Next week,” he said, “my Right Honourable Friends the communities secretary and the planning minister will publish the results of our overhaul of planning regulation. We’re replacing 1,000 pages of guidance with just 50 pages. We’re introducing a presumption in favour of sustainable development, while protecting our most precious environments. The new policy comes into effect when the National Planning Policy Framework is published… This is the biggest reduction in business red tape ever undertaken.”

I was recording the speech, so I played it back to make sure I’d heard it right. Unfortunately, I had. From the jauntiness in the chancellor’s tone as he announced the news, it’s quite clear that he felt he had seen off the opposition and got his own way. The government might have climbed down over the forest issue – the ‘great forest sell-off’ – but it wasn’t going to climb down again. One couldn’t help feeling that there was a macho element here. The way the chaps saw it, poor Caroline Spelman, secretary of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, had simply rolled over and surrendered, faced by a wave of public outrage. Osborne and Pickles are made of sterner stuff, n’est-ce pas?

I have to declare an interest here. My daughter Rachel, editor-in-chief of The Lady, that well-known environmentalist magazine, had a brief innings as president of the Save England’s Forests Campaign.Rachel, with her chief-of-staff Tamsin Omond (of whom more later), had mobilised the troops in a big way. While the larger, more establishment NGOs (WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth etc) had held their fire and minced around with a polite ‘After you, sir, after you, sir; not at all, sir, after you’, Rachel’s team with its internet allies had built up an unstoppable momentum.

The success of the forests campaign in forcing a swift and apparently total government climbdown was due partly to the fact that MPs of all parties felt the force of public opinion via their postbags. More to the point, the proposals to allow Spelman to sell off the nation’s forests actually had to be approved by Parliament, if only in the context of a paragraph or two in the relatively obscure Public Bodies Bill. It’s not clear that the proposals to reform the planning law need any such parliamentary scrutiny and approval. They can, it seems, simply go through on the nod. Judging by Osborne’s remarks to the House about the “changes taking effect…”, it’s only a matter of waiting till the ink is dry.

Who asked for these changes? There’s no evidence that business has been pushing for them. Not publicly anyway. Nor indeed, as far as I can see, have any other sectors of society. On the contrary, Britain’s planning system may have been put into place by Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, but for decades it has enjoyed broad popular and all-party support. More than any other single piece of legislation, the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act is seen to have protected England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ from urban sprawl, ribbon development, badly designed or sited housing and other such horrors.

So why, like King John, were we about to lose our crown jewels in the Wash?

Insofar as the chancellor had an argument to present before the House, he relied on the old hoary chestnut that business will go elsewhere if it faces too many planning constraints here. He appears to believe that a strict planning regime acts as a brake on growth.

Back in the 1970s, when the environmental movement first got into full swing, it was perfectly respectable, even in political circles, to question the ‘let’s go for growth’ argument. Anyone who listened to Frank Fraser Darling’s Reith Lectures in 1969 on Wilderness and Plenty will remember his passionate plea for “stable societies”, stable in respect of population as well as output. When the late great Edward Goldsmith (uncle of Zac Goldsmith MP), in the run-up to the first United Nations conference on the human environment, held in Stockholm in June 1972, published A Blueprint for Survival, they didn’t laugh him out of the Athenaeum. Look at the amazing list of luminaries who endorsed that document.

But even if we accept the ‘gung-ho for growth’ proposition as an inevitable political reality given the current circumstances, there’s no evidence that sound environmental planning acts as a powerful constraint on economic vitality. If anything, the balance tilts the other way.

As Adrian Phillips, former professor of environmental and countryside planning at Cardiff University, pointed out to me, the European countries with the strongest economic performances are those that have the strongest planning regulation. The converse also applies: “Where regulations have been lax, as in Ireland and Spain, you have had ‘building boom and bust’, with disastrous economic consequences.”

Why, I wondered, has the great British public let the chancellor have his way when they simply swatted Spelman aside?

One of the problems, I fear, is that people who think as I do simply couldn’t believe that the government would do what it was proposing to do. Yes, there were straws in the wind. In his autumn Budget statement, Osborne had made some disobliging remarks about “gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”. Having had a hand myself in drafting those directives, I should have been especially vigilant. But I wasn’t. This was meant to be the “greenest government ever”, and I took that at face value.

Once it seemed clear that the government was, amazingly, serious in its intentions about ripping the heart out of our planning law, those who thought this was a bad thing – belatedly gathered around a banner raised by the National Trust (NT) and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). 

Sir Simon Jenkins, the NT’s chairman, and Dame Fiona Reynolds, its director-general, were in the first instance planning to sit down with some of their key allies and negotiate with the government.  It was a rear-guard action, but they hoped to force through some concessions.

I suggested to Simon Jenkins when the NT first took up the cudgels that they should call on Tamsin Omond. In 2008, soon after she had left Cambridge, Omond climbed out onto the roof of the House of Commons with four other members of Plane Stupid to protest against the third runway at Heathrow. “We got close to the edge of the roof – we didn’t have any climbing gear – and dropped our banners. Because the police had to observe health and safety rules, they couldn’t get near us and we were up there for several hours. We wanted to be talked about in PMQs, and we were.”

Omond and her friends were eventually brought down and given a stern warning, but they got rid of the third runway. “Maybe,” I suggested, “the National Trust needs to organise some more ‘direct’ action. MPs seem to listen to that. Maybe Tamsin could tie herself to the hands of Big Ben.”

As far as I know, no one got in touch with her.

There’s a far more serious point in all this. One of the reasons why so many people voted Conservative at the last election was that they were impressed by the party’s green credentials. I was thrilled when David Cameron went on his ‘hug a husky’ expedition to the Arctic. I wish he’d gone to Borneo as well to save the orangutans from the effects of the EU’s mad biofuel directive. (Every time you fill up your car with EU-mandated bio-diesel, you are signing the death warrant of the last remaining orangutans because the rainforest is cut down to make palm oil, bio-diesel’s chief ingredient.)

Vote Blue, Go Green. A lot of people liked what they saw then of the Conservatives’ environmental policy. I hope they still do. But we must be careful not to blow it.

When the National Policy Planning Framework was finally published, in the week following the chancellor’s Budget speech, there were indeed some indications that the anguished representations of the National Trust and others had been heard. Though the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ was retained,  planners were  told – by way of a definition – that they should balance the needs of the environment, economic sustainability, social needs, good governance and sound science. The new framework stipulated that brownfield sites should usually be developed before greenfield sites, and town centres before out-of-town sites. It recognised the “intrinsic value and beauty” of the wider countryside, specifically protects playing fields, and bars “garden grabbing” for development.

Some 250,000 members of the National Trust had petitioned against the draft. Now the Trust, making the best of a bad job, had some words of encouragement for them. “All these changes improve the document and give it a better tone and balance,” said Dame Fiona Reynolds, the charity’s director-general. And Simon Jenkins commented in The Guardian on the results of his own handiwork: “The final redraft of last year’s cowboy raid by lobbyists on English town and country planning suggests that the Tories have narrowly rescued themselves from becoming not so much the nasty party as the ugly one. What last summer read like a builders’ manifesto has been replaced with proper planning guidance. The new document is a vast relief.”

Does this story, after all, have a happy – or at least happier – ending? Only time will tell. I still think they should have called on Tamsin Omond to help.

Stanley Johnson is father of Boris and a patron of the Conservative Environmental Network

Tags: Issue 47, National Policy Planning Framewo, Planning, Stanley Johnson