The National Trust and planning. Part One: the last hundred years

Over the last few years we have seen the biggest shake up in the planning system in England for decades. In 2012 the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was created with the express intent of simplifying a system that had come to be seen in some quarters as overly complex as layer upon layer of legislation and guidance had been added to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.

However, this planning system, together with mechanisms such as the Green Belt, National Parks, AONB, conservation areas and the listing of buildings, has protected the best of our landscapes and the best of our heritage from inappropriate development and harm for nearly 70 years. The history of the National Trust and the planning system are inextricably bound up with each other.

Both the National Trust and the planning system owe their origins to late nineteenth-century concerns about the impact of development on people and places. For the first 50 years of the Trust’s existence, the planning system was relatively weak. The main Acts of Parliament on planning passed up to the Second World War had some impact on housing quality and standards and importantly they created the idea of local authorities setting out the nature and location of development. But they were not able to effectively influence how land was best used nor protect and enhance the natural and historic environment in practice.

During this period the National Trust, and others bodies such as the Ministry of Works, steadily took on the care of single important places and the Trust also made considerable use of covenants to protect land not in its ownership, but this piecemeal protection of the very best of our historic buildings and landscapes could not provide the level of protection needed to safeguard places of historic interest and natural beauty more generally. This limitation was recognised by the founders of the Trust.  It is worth reading in its entirety Robert Hunter’s speech given in Manchester on the eve of the passing of the 1907 National Trust Act in which it is clear that he sees the Trust’s role within the broader debate on land use.  He says:

‘The land of a country is a limited commodity, and is an ever-present factor in the production and distribution of material wealth. It must therefore be put to different uses from time to time, as a nation lives and grows; and each generation will naturally deem of supreme importance that use of land which its day demands. Absorption in the needs and views of the time will therefore tend to the neglect or destruction of the results of prior uses.’

He then goes on to cite both gains and losses to the cause of preservation through his and the other founders’ (Canon Rawnsley and Octavia Hill) influence on parliamentary bills proposing development on common land or the construction of railways through areas such as Snowdonia and the Lake District. He comments on the young National Trust that ‘Its work is by no means confined to the purchase of Places of Interest and Beauty. It fosters action to protect such Places, to ward disaster and to stimulate municipal and private opinion.’

The significant change came with the passing of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act which introduced the basis of the system we have had until now. The Act introduced two main changes:

  • local authorities were now able to produce development plans, setting out detailed policies and specific proposals for the development and use of land in towns (subsequently expanded out to other areas); and
  • land use would be controlled and planning permission would be required for development (although permitted development rights exempted some sectors or types of development from this).

Building on the Act, further measures followed including

  • the Green Belt (from 1955)
  • county structure plans (1968, evolving into regional planning from the 1990s) which allowed for more strategic planning of land uses
  • designations associated with the planning system such as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (created by the 1949 National Parks Act) and various designations for historic assets of international, national or local importance.

The 1967 Civic Amenities Act, which introduced Conservation Areas, was also a significant milestone. The National Trust was active in drawing up many of these designations.

The National Trust’s productive interaction with the planning system can be seen with the Neptune coastline campaign. In the 1960s we identified 3,342 miles of “pristine coastline” in need of permanent protection. With the support of our members and donors, we now own 19% of that total, but when planning designations are included this brings the total protected up to 94%. The National Trust and the planning system have effectively prevented the kind of sprawling development that has eaten up much of the coast in other countries.

Without the planning system, the country would probably have lost many more places to inappropriate development and the Trust would have faced many more calls for it to buy land to protect it, stretching our ability to look after the land and buildings we already own.  And whilst the planning system has not stopped the decline in wildlife populations or threats to water quality or the health of soil, it has in many places retained open countryside with the potential for the natural environment to recover, instead of being lost forever to housing or other development.

But over the last few years we have seen the biggest shake up in the planning system in England for decades. In 2012 the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was created with the express intent of simplifying a system that had come to be seen in some quarters as overly complex as layer upon layer of legislation and guidance had been added to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.

The NPPF, as originally drafted, appeared to the National Trust to be driving a coach and horses through these protections and, in an unprecedented step, we launched a public campaign to try to lessen the worst aspects of the proposed legislation.

The changes the Government agreed to make to the final published NPPF meant we scaled down our public advocacy on planning though worries remained. But the campaign of some think tanks and polemicists against the planning system has continued and we now face a raft of new proposals which seem to be breaking apart the planning system and turning it instead into a planning service for big developers to get development past local communities. In our next post, we’ll cover what we think the future of the National Trust’s work on planning is.

Richard Hebditch, External Affairs Director

 

 

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