Last week the Government announced that it is changing the balance in planning to give greater weight to local concerns on wind farms. On the surface this seems a good thing: giving people a greater say in how their area changes. This is from a Government that has promised much on localism and then done exactly the opposite. So have we turned a corner, and is localism at long last now being placed at the heart of planning?
In short, no. Recently, the Government changed the planning rules around converting empty office space into new homes so that developers need no longer apply for planning permission, i.e. it has taken power away from local communities. This has been hotly contested by some Councils and threatens to undermine their attempts to retain enough employment land to provide local jobs for residents.
This comes on the back of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which gives a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’ and with its requirement over housing provision is actually making it harder for local people to determine how their area develops. Combine this with the NPPF’s unrealistic time-frame for local planning authorities to adopt Local Plans and this is seem by many as a real threat to local planning control. It is getting so bad that some people are beginning to wonder whether we would have been better off keeping regional planning!
On top of this the Growth & Infrastructure Act has further relaxed (and centralised) planning control, particularly around masts and telecommunications, while politicians talk of kick-starting the national economy with new infrastructure investment. No doubt there are arguments for and against such investment, but if the Government is really committed to localism it has got to do more than allowing local communities to create Neighbourhood Plans and tweaking the rules around wind farms.
The South Downs is under pressure to accept several major developments within its borders and there are fears, such as around St Cuthmans, that national policy on education or economic development will ride roughshod over the need to protect the National Park. The National Park Authority needs the power to determine these applications and prioritise conservation and enhancement of the National Park’s special qualities. Otherwise, we risk degrading an important natural asset in the pursuit of short term economic gain, which could end up costing us more in the long term.
Unless the Government is going to give local people the power to decide on new road schemes, shale gas extraction (fracking – already raising its head at Fernhurst) and a whole range of other large scale developments, particularly on housing numbers, its decision to change the rules on wind farms looks out of step with its centralising approach to planning. Rather than a realisation that it has got the balance wrong and needs to redress this, the change in approach to wind farms appears little more than a political sop.