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My Lords, this is a timely debate on one of the most contentious issues of the moment, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for introducing it and doing so in an absolutely excellent speech.
It is appropriate that this Motion should be introduced from the Benches opposite. The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was one of the great achievements of the post-war Labour Government and has been responsible for the quite remarkable degree of preservation that has been achieved for the British countryside, including specifically its protection from ribbon development and from inappropriately sited high-rise buildings. To that one could perhaps add protection from suburbanisation, although I must be careful of what I say in front of colleagues who come from Surrey.
The result of this cultivation of one of our most precious national assets is widespread international envy and admiration, and a vibrant rural tourist industry. It would be foolish and tragic to throw this away. I have no objection in principle to this attempt in the NPPF to codify planning law in 50 pages, and I understand that economic activity must be permitted to develop and grow and that an expanding population needs to be accommodated in our crowded island, but as the Prime Minister eventually acknowledged in the letter that he wrote to Dame Fiona Reynolds, it is important to balance environmental considerations against social and economic factors.
I regret that the NPPF has dropped the previous requirement that brownfield sites should be developed ahead of greenfield sites, and I am intrigued and delighted that the party opposite has taken up this issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said last night in support of the amendment to that effect, such a requirement would also benefit the regeneration of run-down urban areas.
I think it is wrong that where local plans have not yet been drawn up-the case with over half of local authorities-or where they are out of date, development can then expect a green light. This is the issue of transition that was taken up last night during proceedings on the Localism Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Deben. Frankly, it would be chicanery to thus trick local authorities out of their rights, given the complicated legal and bureaucratic requirements for drawing up local plans; so this issue must be addressed. Nor do I see why local authorities should be instructed that poor transport links should not be used to justify refusing development plans. Once again, this is unnecessary direction from the top.
Above all, there should be a statement supporting the preservation of the countryside, taking account of its landscape value, outside the designated areas of green belts, AONBs and national parks. After all those areas account for more than half the countryside in England, and without its protection we can expect urban sprawl and the countryside to become scattered with bungalows. That was the purport of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Marlesford last night. The Government may have reaffirmed, and the NPPF may also confirm, the previous protection for designated areas, but to leave out any appreciation of the value and the need to protect countryside outside the designated areas is to leave the impression that all such areas will and should receive no protection.
All these changes could be made with the alteration of just a few words here and there in the NPPF document. Even to add on page 46 after the words "protecting valued landscapes" the words "including non-designated landscapes" might be enough to cater for the inclusion of such areas.
I am not sure whether even designated areas do not require greater protection. In the past two years, there have been two attempts to acquire planning permission for large-scale wind farms six kilometres within the Forest of Bowland AONB. This was undoubtedly a try-on by the developer, and if it had been successful it would have led to a full-blown assault on AONBs nationwide. That suggests that the present protection could and should be improved.
I think there is a tendency for Governments, desperate to produce economic growth, to find in planning policy a scapegoat for the failure of other policies and the imperative of ineluctable circumstance. There is no observable correlation, as the chief executive of CPRE pointed out in a recent published letter, between loose planning regimes and strong economic growth: Germany and the Scandinavian countries having strong planning regimes and economies, Ireland and the Mediterranean countries having weaker ones.
In our small, crowded island, with many precious natural and manmade assets to be preserved as best as possible, it is only right that planning approval should be a laborious process that seeks to find acceptance for a compromise between competing interests. It is the slowness of the process that itself helps to provide the acceptance of the outcome.
There is one other matter to which I wish to refer. We have spent many fruitless hours, and will doubtless spend many hundreds more, bandying about the word "sustainability". The irony is that there is nothing less sustainable than the Government's entire renewable energy policy. I referred last night to what we saw at the recent Conservative Party conference and to how the leaders of the party are beginning to signal a difference of emphasis with regard to their green policies. They are evidently beginning to be worried about the expense. This expense is, of course, set to rise exponentially and quite unaffordably, so the change in rhetoric will have to be followed by a change in policy, as I said last night, unless we want living standards in this country to be driven back to pre-industrial age levels. That will then make pages 42 and 43 of the draft NPPF, which amount to genuflection before the altar of global warming, entirely out of date.
What will happen then? The Government will have to row back from their instructions to local authorities to pay so much attention to climate change, but that moment cannot come too soon, for the greatest destruction taking place today to our countryside is due to the proliferation of wind turbines, ever larger in size, maintained by subsidies that are largely paid to foreign companies, impoverishing a new generation of consumers, driving large-scale manufacturing overseas so that the carbon emissions are produced abroad but the unemployment is produced at home, enriching a few farmers and landlords but arousing violent antagonism among thousands more. It all amounts to a ruinous tribute to a toppling idol. To give it a final push would do more than anything else to save our countryside and our economy. Is the party opposite not interested in taking up that cause?