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All the government ministers pushing through a controversial relaxation of planning regulations have opposed developments in their own constituencies, including new housing and businesses, a care home for elderly people and a memorial to Princess Diana.
The Guardian revelations leave the chancellor, George Osborne, and Eric Pickles and his ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government accused of “breathtaking hypocrisy” for saying major changes to planning laws are vital to boost economic growth and ease the shortage of homes, while fighting such developments in their own backyards.
In August 2010, Osborne was the first of 25,000 people to sign a petition against an energy-from-waste plant in his Cheshire constituency, despite having described the company Brunner Mond as an “important local employer“. He is also honorary president of a campaign against a second local incinerator. Pickles, the secretary of state for communities and local government, also campaigned against a waste facility, a composting site at Stondon Massey in his Essex constituency, saying approval would “open the doors for our county to become the waste dump for the south-east”.
In addition, he successfully opposed a residential care home for 114 elderly people in Pilgrims Hatch in 2003, saying it would be a “heavy burden” on local services.
Outdated ideological mantra
“This is hypocrisy of the highest order,” said Craig Bennett, policy director of Friends of the Earth. “These ministers have used the planning system to stop developments like composting sites which are part of a sustainable economy. Now they are taking away the ability for people to oppose developments that are unsustainable. It is an outdated ideological mantra that a development free-for-all is needed for economic growth.”
The government’s proposals to introduce a presumption in favour of development in planning applications have provoked a huge outcry from countryside and green groups including the National Trust, Friends of the Earth and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which described the plan as a “free for all” for developers. Politicians, including Conservatives, have decried the proposals as undermining local democracy.
Ministers have responded aggressively, with planning minister Greg Clark accusing critics of “nihilistic selfishness” for preventing young people from getting on the housing ladder and Osborne lending his political weight by stating: “When planning acts as a brake on growth, and on the much needed new jobs and new businesses, reform is imperative.”
Pickles: ‘Sprawling estates on green land’
In 2004, Pickles spoke out against previous efforts to liberalise the planning system, saying Gordon Brown’s Treasury “seems … determined to loosen control to make development easier” and he feared “sprawling housing estates dumped by Whitehall on green land“.
He argued that “adding to suburban sprawl will detract from rather than help urban regeneration” and that “there has to be a greater emphasis on … using previously developed brownfield land”. Pickles’s new national planning policy framework (NPPF) would end the “brownfield first” policy.
Clark, who has been at the forefront of the government’s defence of the NPPF, fiercely opposed the previous government’s attempts to increase the number of homes built in and around his Tunbridge Wells constituency. He called the plan for 6,000 new homes a “nationally imposed hike in housing numbers [that] will place yet more pressure on our precious green spaces” and said brownfield sites must be the priority for building. Clark also waged a long campaign against the redevelopment of gardens in towns and cities, which increases the number of homes available. The practice, dubbed “garden grabbing” by critics, left whole streets “changed out of all recognition”, Clark said in 2006.
The other four ministers in the department have also supported anti-development campaigns. Grant Shapps opposed plans for thousands of new houses in his Welwyn Hatfield constituency. Shapps, who holds a pilot’s licence, also defended a threatened small airfield as “good for biodiversity” and useful to “train pilots who eventually fly for airlines”. He also opposes an energy-from-waste incinerator plant in New Barnfield.
Andrew Stunell, the only Liberal Democrat minister in the department, has mounted a long campaign against the building of mobile phone masts, putting a motion before parliament in 2007 saying that “the current planning system is not sufficiently robust”. He has also opposed new homes being built on gardens and the possibility of a new supermarket in his Hazel Grove constituency in Greater Manchester.
Another minister, Bob Neill, promised in opposition to “make it harder for developers to appeal against properly made local decisions” and opposed the conversion of a historic pub in his Chislehurst constituency into flats.
Hanham opposed a Diana memorial
The department’s minister in the House of Lords, Lady Hanham, led Kensington and Chelsea borough council from 1989 until 2000. In 1998, eight months after the death of Princess Diana, she objected to proposals for a memorial garden at Kensington Palace, saying its visitors would cause disruption. Under her leadership, the council also blocked proposals from Persimmon Homes for a residential tower in west London.
Neil Sinden, CPRE policy director, said: “Wanting to protect a place or landscape you love is no bad thing, and it’s good to see these ministers standing up for the concerns of their constituents. However, it seems hypocritical for the same ministers to label those opposed to their planning reforms as nimbys and nihilists. Good planning can enable communities to grow without trashing the environment. But to give one aspect – economic growth – excessive weight will not result in sustainable development but a much diminished countryside.”
Caroline Flint, the shadow communities and local government secretary, said: “Tory ministers are showing breathtaking hypocrisy. Time and again, they have decried the lack of housing, while cynically campaigning against new homes for families in their own constituencies. Labour supports the streamlining of the planning system but by ripping up 60 years of planning policy, the government has created chaos and confusion in the planning system, threatening the very areas they promised to protect.”
A spokesperson for Pickles said: “All MPs are well within their rights to campaign against bad planning,” adding that the minister utterly rejected the accusation of hypocrisy.
Osborne and the communities and local government department declined to comment.
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