It didn’t take long for the people of West Sussex to work out that inserting the word ‘eco’ before ‘town’ in order to promote a new development was no more than greenwash.
It didn’t take long for the people of West Sussex to work out that inserting the word ‘eco’ before ‘town’ in order to promote a new development was no more than greenwash. Developers had been trying to build on greenfield land near the historic town of Arundel for some time, so when Brown began to mention ‘eco-towns’ they seized on the idea.
The tiny village of Ford was to be transformed not into a new town, but into an eco-town. Birds would sing, rabbits would hop and butterflies would flutter… and 5,000 houses would be built on open countryside, a flood plain and Grade 1 agricultural land. What’s more, it turned out, the houses would be built to lower environmental standards than other developments.
So locals took up arms. The men and women of West Sussex marched in their thousands. But it wasn’t just Ford. All across the country, ‘eco-towns’ were seen off by residents.
It shouldn’t take locals pouring onto the streets to get their voices heard. But Britain, the most centralised country in the Western world, has so marginalised communities and councils that protesting is frequently their only hope.
Eco-towns are a particularly pernicious example, but there are countless similar schemes, all designed to prevent people from making their own decisions. Labour has created a monumental quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, to take decisions without the inconvenience of democratic accountability. Regional assemblies have been abolished, only to see the powers transferred to wholly unelected Regional Development Agencies.
The planning system has been turned on its head. Where it ought to allow local decision-making, it interferes. Yet where national protection and consistency is needed, it has been undermined.
The loss of the green belt has been alarming. More than 1,100 hectares of green belt land have been lost each year since 1997 and a further quarter of a million homes could be built on the green belt by 2026.
The paradox of Labour’s centralism is that it has failed to deliver. In rural areas, there remains a chronic shortage of affordable housing.
Last month, the Conservatives launched a truly radical policy to reform England’s broken planning system.
The Infrastructure Planning Commission, national housing target and regional spatial strategies would go. Instead, local communities would be empowered to create ‘bottom-up’ local plans to shape and protect the character of their neighbourhood. And by matching pound-for-pound the council tax revenue received on all new homes for a period of six years, councils would have the incentive to permit new development.
Two weeks ago, a constituent who was a professional planner appeared in my surgery. Didn’t I understand, he said, that local communities would always be ‘nimbys’, saying no to development. He’s wrong. The residents of West Sussex understand better than anyone that there’s a local need for affordable housing. Give them the power and — crucially — the financial incentives to provide it, and they will. There’s a solution to the housing crisis, one which doesn’t require imposed development or destruction of the countryside. It’s called trusting people.
Nick Herbert is shadow secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.