Pick ‘n’ Mix Localism

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.

Twyford Down Anniversary

The M3 cutting through Twyford Down

This weekend sees the 20th anniversary of the controversial construction of the M3 through Twyford Down, now part of the South Downs National Park.  To mark this anniversary, the Campaign for Better Transport is supporting a rally on Saturday (29th Sept) on St Catherine’s Hill, overlooking the site.

Once revered for its natural beauty and cultural past Twyford Down is probably best known nowadays as a symbol of the folly and destructive nature of new roadbuilding.  It was where the Government’s roads programme was challenged in a way it had never been challenged before.

It set in motion a reappraisal of not just roadbuilding but the way we view travel and its interaction with planning.  But given all this happened 20 years ago, are we in danger of forgetting the lessons of the past?  As the current coalition Government grapples with the economic crisis there is increasing talk of building large infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy alongside relaxing planning laws.

Of course Twyford Down wasn’t the only place damaged by the Government of the day.  The tragedy of Brighton & Hove bypass (built in the 1990s) was that the Government Minister ignored the Inquiry Inspector’s recommendation that much of the road be tunnelled.  The one exception being at Southwick Hill where National Trust ownership provided the Department of Transport with a real headache unless it was prepared to put the road underground.

Other trunks roads have also impacted upon the South Downs such as the A3, the A27 Lewes bypass and more recently the A27 Southerham to Beddingham improvement.  Latterly, more care has been taken to integrate new roads better into the landscape.  But is that the answer?  Roads have a far greater impact that their immediate visual impact.  The traffic using them generates noise and there are precious few tranquil areas in the South East.  Building more road capacity can increase traffic levels, not just on the roads themselves but on surrounding areas.  Then of course there’s air pollution and climate change.

There are plenty of schemes remaining on politicians’ wish lists, particularly along the A27.  If built they would lead to a significant increase in traffic passing alongside and through the National Park.  Meanwhile the coastal rail service appears to have received comparatively little investment, apart from the compulsory lick of paint every time the franchise is renewed.

So on the 20th anniversary of Twyford Down, let us remember the mistakes of the past so we can tread a more sensitive path in the future.  The landscape is very different to the 1990s, but politicians still seem to favour the big infrastructure project over community based initiatives, even when the latter often offer better value for money.