Pro-development belt tightening poses 'threat to green belt'

By: Richard Heap
Published: 15 July 2011

The government's presumption in favour of sustainable development could make it difficult for local councils to block environmentally unfriendly schemes

That is the warning from one of the advisers who helped the government to draft its new planning policies. Simon Marsh, acting head of sustainable development at wildlife charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, was a member of the Practitioners Advisory Group.

Decentralisation minister Greg Clark invited Marsh and the group’s three other members to write the first draft of the National Planning Policy Framework, including a presumption in favour of sustainable development. The group published its draft framework in May ahead of a government draft due next week.

Marsh says the group's presumption tried to strike a balance between economic growth, social justice and environmental concerns. He is now worried that the government's version, published on 15 June, ahead of the framework, focuses too much on economic growth, at the expense of environmental concerns.

"We were concerned when we saw the government's working draft that economic growth was the priority and everything else was subordinate to that. We need to think about the long term, and not just our short-term economic predicament," says Marsh. He adds that the government's latest draft "waters down the definition of ’sustainable development’” and would also “make it more difficult to prevent environmentally damaging developments".

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has also criticised the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the National Planning Policy Framework. CPRE chief executive Shaun Spiers says the countryside is at risk because of their "'growth at any cost' stance".

The CPRE has published a list of areas of outstanding natural beauty that it says are under threat if local authorities have to prioritise economic growth. The campaign identifies plans to build a new nuclear reactor at power station Sizewell B and proposals for the High Speed 2 rail link as particular dangers that would harm the Suffolk coast and Chilterns respectively.

Campaigners have also claimed the National Planning Policy Framework would lead to more development in the green belt. Marsh, however, defends the presumption and says it would not overrule protection for the green belt. "I don’t think there is a significant difference between the policy in the draft and existing policy," he says.

John Rhodes, director at planning consultant Quod – and a member of the Practitioners Advisory Group – adds: "It's not growth at any cost. The idea that you're suddenly going to concrete over the green belt willy-nilly is scaremongering and not what the draft says."

Communities and Local Government has also insisted the framework would not weaken its commitment to protecting the green belt.