15 December 2022
And the Aim is?
by Lynda Goetz
There are two ways of looking at last week’s government backtracking on two major planning issues. One is that it is listening (or perhaps rather being forced to listen) to its backbenchers and the other is that it appears to have no real ideology or sense of direction. Which view you take may depend on where your own sympathies lie.
The first issue is the abandoning of the ban, put in place under David Cameron, on any further onshore wind ‘farms’, or, as they should probably more correctly be called, ‘wind factories’. A back bench rebellion supported by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss backed an amendment to the levelling up bill put forward by Simon Clarke. He is keen to see this country improve its energy self-sufficiency and suggested that the ban was a ban on growth. It was also, of course, argued that wind energy is ‘green’.
Well, it is, up to a point, but there are long-standing concerns around it. Storage of wind power is costly and difficult and is therefore only useful when the wind is blowing; because of the amount of anchoring which a large wind turbine needs the concrete bases required take up a large area of land which might have other potential uses; the noise they make is disturbing and finally, they cause the destruction of our already rare birds of prey. In a well-researched article, The Sinister Truth About Bird-killing Wind Farms, published in Climate Change Dispatch as well as other publications, science writer Matt Ridley, gives numerous details of the birds lost around the world. As he points out, these birds are not birds which live at high densities. Do we really need to destroy so many other species to ensure our own survival on this planet we keep talking of saving?
The lifting of the ban on onshore wind farms will undoubtedly lead to skirmishes at a local level. This too will be the result of the other planning issue which has recently seen the government back-track on its previous stance. Whereas originally the plan was to enforce rigidly the government ‘top-down’ target of building 300,000 homes a year, effectively brooking no local opposition to turning suburbs into cities and rural areas into suburbs, Rishi Sunak has agreed to amend the levelling up bill to make local housebuilding targets ‘advisory’ rather than ‘mandatory’. This was welcomed by the 100 or so MPs who had been pushing for the change, but declared ‘unconscionable’ by the Labour party, who supported the government on this matter.
Where you stand on this may well depend on whether you are already a house-owner or whether you are one of those yet to get on the housing ladder. Clearly, we need more places in which people can live, but is it right that central government should be removing the decision-making from local authorities and local people? In places like Devon and Cornwall, whole estates are being constructed in areas where there is little work and insufficient infrastructure. These are already having the effect of transforming the character of the areas where they have been ‘dumped’. Giving back to locals the chance to have just a little more influence in how their neighbourhood develops is surely not a bad thing?
All very well, you may say, but Nimbyism is not going to help accommodate a growing population and promote the growth our country so desperately needs. This may well be true, but perhaps allowing local areas and their politicians and businesses more say in how they develop will ensure greater satisfaction, less anger and more cohesion as we make progress. In this regard, the whole issue of immigration is also inextricably bound up with planning, as, it has to be said, is how we deal with existing housing stock and other buildings. Government needs to deal promptly with the former (and the processing of those arriving and those already arrived) and imaginatively with the latter. Perhaps a new look at post-Covid unwanted office and retail space in town centres is called for? The excessive and burdensome regulations currently being imposed on those renting out property are driving many small landlords out of the market. The knock-on effects of this have not, it would seem, been clearly thought through. The loss of residential rental properties is not going to be solved by building hundreds of thousands of new homes for people to buy. It may be in the interests of Tory votes to increase home ownership, but rental properties will still be needed. Where are these going to come from if the private landlord sector is decimated?
Another area where the government does not appear to be clear whether its aim is conservation, preservation, growth or being green is in the legislation around listed buildings. Listed buildings which are of major historic interest and of national importance are one thing, but domestic buildings which over decades have had listed building status slapped on them by over-zealous planning officers or because there happened to be a favourable tax-regime for owners in place at the time (exemption from VAT) are stuck in a time-warp. When we are all being encouraged to save energy to ‘save the planet’, owners of these buildings are not allowed to put in double-glazing or to put solar panels on the roof. In an era when energy costs are sky high, this is not only an anachronism, but ludicrous and pointless. Double glazed windows look very little different from single-glazed panes and yet can make all the difference to the energy usage and energy bills of a household. Likewise, there are now forms of solar panelling which can be made to look very similar to slate roofing. Why are owners of historic properties being punished in this and other ways? With the increased emphasis on energy saving, government proposals for minimum EPC ratings have been enthusiastically taken up by mortgage companies, who have suggested offering lower interest rates for houses which meet the criteria. Once again this will leave those custodians of historic properties at a serious disadvantage, possibly even unable to sell when they need to do so.
This necessarily brief ‘romp’ through the lack of joined-up thinking and clear purpose in several aspects of our government’s legislation highlights several things; firstly, the problems facing Rishi Sunak in uniting an increasingly fractured Tory party, secondly, the importance of engaging people at a local level with government strategy; thirdly, the need for that strategy to be consistent and fourthly for communication between government departments, government bodies and the general public.
On the latter point, perhaps a plea that it not be the sort of government communication to the public issued last week, which told us to put on warm clothes and shoes with non-slip soles when going out on a cold icy day!