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The view from the floor: Lib Dem activists have their say on planning reforms

September 21, 2011

Nick Clegg: picture by Liberal Democrats

As the Liberal Democrat party conference in Birmingham draws to a close, it appears that Lib Dem party bosses have managed to keep a lid on the row over the government’s planning reform. Business secretary Vince Cable is reported to have told a fringe meeting last night that “planning reform is not taking off, except for the Daily Telegraph, as a political issue”, and if you were to base your assessment of his statement solely on events at this conference, you’d be hard pressed to argue with him. Nevertheless, this is not to say that all Lib Dem party activists are happy with the direction of the government’s planning reforms. I got the sense from several of the packed fringe meetings on planning that I had attended that quite a few party members were concerned over the reforms, so I thought I’d sit in on a debate in the main hall to get a sense of what activists made of the reforms.

The debate, yesterday afternoon, saw a policy motion on quality of life discussed. The motion proposed that the “promotion of quality of life” should “lie at the heart of the planning framework”. It called for “planning frameworks generally to promote open space and exposure to the natural environment”. And an amendment to the policy motion called for “the concept of sustainable development, through which social and economic needs are balanced, is an integral component of quality of life, and should be incorporated into all measures of quality of life and all other relevant government policies”.

In a wide-ranging debate on the policy motion, lasting for more than an hour, the issue of planning reform came up several times. Andrew George, MP for St Ives, said: “When we look at the future development of the NPPF, we need to make sure that the word sustainability actually means what it says. It’s down to Liberal Democrats to make sure that we reinforce that point and that we don’t end up with a developer’s charter across the countryside.”

Speaking from the floor, Stewart Edge, a party activist from south-west Surrey, said that the proposed motion would “provide a new focus crystallising vital non-economic factors when it is argued that things must be done for their economic benefits.

“On planning, it includes a focus on the importance of quality of life when assessing the draft planning framework, including the value of promoting open spaces, the natural environment and our own natural heritage policy. In Vince’s economic war, we must make sure that we limit the collateral damage to the quality of life.”

And Ros Kayes, a Lib Dem councillor in West Dorset, told the conference that “good growth supports communities, bad growth destroys them”. She said: “Communities are victims of commercial expansionism by supermarkets, the destruction of local shops and town centres. Many of us have spent years fighting for these things, and now we’re having to deal with the proposed NPPF.” Kayes added: “If localism is to work, the presumption in favour of sustainable development must be the presumption for sustainability. Sometimes sustainability is more important than growth.”

Without undertaking a large survey of party members, it’s difficult to really get a sense of how uncomfortable Lib Dem activists feel about the government’s proposed planning reforms. My impression from the conference is that there is definitely disquiet, but it’s hard to say whether this extends beyond a minority of party members.

The policy motion was passed after a count, so now becomes the party’s policy (but is unlikely to influence government policy, as this was set out in the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems).

jamie.carpenter@haymarket.com

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. RichardW permalink
    September 21, 2011 11:15 am

    This puts me in mind of a piece Grant Shapps wrote in the Grauniad the other day:
    “Garden cities today
    We need to look at how we can apply the concept and improve on these basic ideas to reboot the garden city idea so it is shaped and owned by the community rather than the planners.
    That’s why this government is stripping away barriers to this type of large-scale investment “
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/housing-network/2011/sep/19/garden-cities-grant-shapps-housing
    As an aside, does anyone know how many Council houses could we build for £35 Billion and would this not be better for everyone than HS2???

  2. September 21, 2011 8:36 pm

    New Garden Cities?
    Sounds like a rehash of ecotowns, with the attendant issues: http://planningrulesblog.blogspot.com/2011/09/ebenezer-lives.html

  3. RichardW permalink
    September 22, 2011 12:05 pm

    Never said it was a good idea. Looking at some recent RSL bids I’d estimate the HS2 Budget of £35B could pay for approximately 250,000 council houses. Red or Black anyone?

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