It’s all getting quite heated out there. And so it should – although it always looks bad if the government Ministers are the ones losing their tempers whilst the environmental campaigners are cool, calm and collected.
But it’s not surprising, because the government is in a worse place over planning reform than it was over forests. If Cameron had held his nerve, which he doesn’t seem very good at doing, over the future of forestry, then the government could have salvaged something from the consultation process and the issue might well have gone away, because, quite honestly, no-one would have noticed the difference very quickly whoever owned productive, uninteresting, wildlife-poor conifer forests.
But this time around, with the planning system, the government really does want to change things dramatically and it is trying to hide the fact from all of us – but only sometimes. Because it can’t quite make up its mind whether it’s hiding the fact that everything will be up for development or boasting about it!
Remember it was over a month ago that CLG Minister Bob Neill started calling NGOs names– those lefties from the National Trust! And in Wednesday’s Times Alice Thompson marvelled at the belligerance of Ministers, one of whom apparently said that the RSPB was filled with ‘red-crested Trotskyites’. My! How things have changed back at The Lodge in a few short months.
And then there was the ranting piece by Osborne and Pickles in Monday’s FT promising to fight and battle anyone and anything in the cause of economic growth.
Amongst all this nastiness Greg Clark, the nice man of CLG, is always trotted out to be the reasonable face of government and he does it quite well. But I trust Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Pickles – when they say they aren’t going to let the planning system get in the way of economic growth that is what they mean. And when they say nothing about what sustainable development means then that’s what they mean – nothing!
But nobody does know what sustainable development means – or at least it means different things to different people, which doesn’t make it a very clear concept to use in your reform of the planning system unless you are trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.
For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that the RSPB ever had a definition of sustainable development but we did have a pretty handy test. We always regarded the ‘maintenance of biodiversity’ as a key test of sustainability and that still seems pretty good. Living in a way that depletes the planet’s natural capital (to put it in a way that Mr Osborne might favour) is not sustainable – it passes on a worse planet to future generations and that cannot be regarded as fair and it cannot be regarded as sustainable.
I’m not expecting government to accept this definition of sustainable development. But since government is committed to a planning system which has a presumption in favour of sustainable development let’s assume that no-one knows what the word sustainable means. Where does that leave us? Yep, with a system with a presumption for development.
The planning system should help deliver a sustainable future by stepping in the way of proposals that are short-term, will damage wildlife, will damage the beauty of the world around us and are wrong-headed. But a positive planning system should also step forward and embrace those proposals that lead to a better world, of more wealth, more efficient use of the world’s limited resources, more natural beauty and a better future for us all.
But the government seems to think that the correct behaviour for a planning system is to be seen (in the distance) and not heard, to step aside and get out of the way, to exist but not influence. I trust them – they mean it. And it is bad.