This article appears in the latest edition of our National Trust Magazine (spring 2012). All National Trust members receive the Magazine three times a year. Want to get behind the scene snippets from the magazine team? Why not follow them on Twitter or like them on Facebook.
Up for grabs?
Many people – Government ministers among them – were surprised to find the Trust taking a strong public stance against proposed changes to land-use planning in England last summer. Yet anyone acquainted with the Trust’s history, says Ben Cowell, would have known that there are times when, as our founders would have wished, we have to speak up and demand action.
Founded in 1895, the National Trust pre-dates the planning system as we know it today. Arguably, indeed, it was the absence of any sort of planning restrictions at the end of the 19th century that made the creation of a National Trust such an irresistible idea to our founders Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Our mission is to care for places of historic interest and natural beauty of all kinds, whether or not they are in our ownership. That has seen us, at different times in the past, championing causes like threats to country houses or the plight of the coastline.
The publication of a revised planning policy framework, rushed out after Parliamentarians had left for their holidays late last July, demanded a clear response from the National Trust. The document outlined a new approach to planning, which emphasised above all the need for new developments to be approved swiftly and in much greater quantity. We called for a rethink of the plans and were delighted at the reaction to our campaign. Within weeks, tens of thousands had signed up to our petition, online and at our places, demonstrating that our fears were widely shared.
Our principal concern was that, although the policy deployed the language of ‘sustainable development’, there were too few assurances against the sort of urban sprawl that had so troubled our forebears in the 1920s and 1930s. While the green belt and other special areas were given specific guarantees, two-thirds of the English landscape was not protected in this way. Our anxiety was that the green fields and open spaces at the edges of towns and villages could be swamped by proposals for new warehouses, superstores and housing developments.
Similar concerns lay behind the publication of Clough Williams-Ellis’s England and the Octopus in 1928 and his edited collection Britain and the Beast in 1937. Writing in the latter, the philosopher and broadcaster C.E.M. Joad presented a nightmarish vision of the consequences of sprawl, suggesting that: ‘In fifty years’ time there will, in southern England, be neither town nor country, but only a single dispersed suburb…from Watford to the coast.’
The solution was the creation of defined development plans for areas, which was the basis for the planning system as it evolved from the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act onwards. The essentials of that post-1947 planning system remain intact today. Indeed, Government’s defence of its proposed new policy framework was that, if anything, it reinforced the importance of local plans for areas, as opposed to the top-down targets imposed by Whitehall or bureaucratic regional administrations.
There is much in this that the National Trust could welcome, not least given our own passion for localism. The trouble is that large parts of the country have no plan – nearly half (47 per cent) of local areas were not covered at the time when the new policy was launched. In the absence of a plan, Government made it clear that decisions needed to be taken in line with its national policy, which contained a strong presumption in favour of development (as long as it was sustainable, of course). Our concern was that this weighted the whole process so heavily in support of saying ‘yes’ to new development that it was, effectively, recasting the planning system as an agent of economic growth above all else.
We’re not against change and growth – far from it. The Trust engages with the planning system every day, whether in response to others’ proposals or in submitting development applications of our own (including for housing schemes). Yet for us, planning serves a much broader purpose as the arbiter between different interests – nature, heritage, community well-being, transport and much else besides. These different aspects are not always in conflict with one another, but where they are, the planning system needs to arrive at decisions that best serve the long-term public interest and not short-term economic gain.
We’ll continue to make a stand where we see places under threat in this way. We also want to make a positive contribution by helping people take a closer interest in the future of their local patch. Our polling tells us that 70 per cent of people are currently ‘not very likely’ or ‘not at all likely’ to get involved in forming neighbourhood plans. What better way for us to be true to our ‘going local’ ambitions, as well as our long-term mission to look after the landscape, than to encourage greater participation in the decisions that affect the everyday places where we live and work?
Ben Cowell is Assistant Director of External Affairs for the National Trust.