Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Green Belt to become a money belt

One by one the achievements struggled for by previous generations come under the New Labour axe. Today you can add the Green Belt around cities to a list that already includes the commercialisation of health and education, the devastation of affordable social housing programmes and the destruction of a whole series of democratic rights. In 1926, the Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) urged the protection of the countryside from urban sprawl. The Green Belts around London, Birmingham and Sheffield were among the first to be established in the 1930s, inspired by the CPRE’s campaigns. But it was the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 that first allowed local authorities to include Green Belt proposals in their development plans. That Act was a major achievement of the post-war Labour government, elected by a landslide by soldiers and civilians determined not to allow the hated Tories to return after the war. The Act set the framework for planning decisions that put the public interest high on the agenda and was landmark social legislation on an international scale.

But New Labour is not Atlee’s post-war old Labour. This government hates anything where the public viewpoint is seen as important to the detriment of commercial, private sector considerations. So who better to ask to wreck the old planning system that one of Gordon Brown’s favourite economists, Kate Barker? Her report for the Treasury talks of "green wedges" replacing the Green Belt that has thwarted urban sprawl and allowed people in towns to access clean air and the countryside. She also advocates abolition of the existing planning inquiry system for major developments because is too cumbersome. More to the point, the current system is a venue for campaigners and local people to make their case against, for example, airport expansion projects. Ah, but democracy is such a wearisome thing if you are a supermarket just itching to get that new superstore up in the Green Belt. Other proposals include scrapping regulations in order to save consultants and the private sector £500m a year. The British Property Federation was, naturally enough, ecstatic, declaring: "We are delighted about the recognition of the need to rethink how the planning system can deliver major projects in a timely manner."

Several organisations have reacted sharply to the Barker report. The New Economics Foundation has produced a series of studies that show how many of Britain's towns and cities are in decline because of unchecked superstores’ dominance. NEF commented: "Current planning guidelines, although inadequate, provide one of the few checks and balances on supermarket dominance and out-of-town expansion. To rip them up would be to head 180 degrees in the wrong direction." CPRE Chief Executive Shaun Spiers warned: "If we go down this route, local councils and communities could end up finding they have sacrificed one of our greatest resources – beautiful, nearby countryside – for short term financial gain." Friends of the Earth pointed out that Barker's vision of uncontrolled development "will mean communities have little or no say in how their local area is developed". FoE’s insists that "government must ensure that people have a say on the future of their communities and their environment". The problem for campaigners, however, is that the government is simply not interested in preserving the old when the new is potentially so much more "efficient" and, more importantly, beneficial to supermarkets and property developers.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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