With David Cameron yesterday putting the final touches to his controversial Government reshuffle, backbench MPs have issued a public warning the Coalition’s latest attempts to revive the economy may have a “damaging” effect on rural areas.
Leeds North West Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland laid a formal motion before Parliament expressing grave concern about the suggestion that Ministers hope to further relax planning laws and weaken protection for existing green belt land.
Chancellor George Osborne said at the weekend that planning rules are holding back growth, and that councils should be encouraged to “allow some development on the green belt” if they compensate by increasing its size elsewhere.
On Sunday the Prime Minister said he too was “frustrated by the hoops you have to jump through” when embarking on projects in Britain, and attacked the “nimbys” who oppose development.
Today Mr Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will reveal new measures to temporarily relax planning laws and allow extensions of up to 25 feet on people’s homes, without the need for planning permission.
The move will delight homeowners and businesses looking to extend their properties, but will also raise serious fears of “garden-grabbing”.
“We’re determined to cut through the bureaucracy that holds us back,” the two party leaders will say. “That starts with getting the planners off our backs.”
But countryside campaigners fear the consequences of any further relaxation of the planning rules, coming only months after the Government’s last controversial shake-up of the system.
Mr Osborne’s words have already been welcomed by the wind turbine industry, which said it may help speed up their developments.
There are more than 260,000 hectares of green belt land across Yorkshire, designed to protect around the urban sprawl of cities such as Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and York.
Sean Spires, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said building on the green belt is “unnecessary”.
Mr Mulholland’s Commons motion, signed by a string of Conservative and Labour backbenchers, formally recognises the “success of the green belt” and registers “concern at reports the protections for green belts could be weakened”.
The Lib Dem MP said any decision to allow building on the green belt could backfire spectacularly for the Government in way that its aborted sell-off of the forests did in 2010.
“Reports that the Government intend to legislate to speed up planning decisions and encourage development of green belt land, if certain conditions are met, are extremely concerning,” Mr Mulholland said.
“Green belts play a vital role in preventing over-development of towns and cities, safeguarding the countryside from encroachment as well as encouraging urban regeneration and the re-use of brownfield sites.
“This is something many Government backbenchers on both the Lib Dem and Conservative benches will not accept.
“Ministers would be foolish to try to sacrifice our green belt.”
This week’s Government reshuffle has served to further increase the concerns of campaigners, following the appointment of Tory moderniser Nick Boles as Planning Minister.
Earlier this year Mr Boles attacked groups opposed to relaxing Britain’s planning laws as “latterday Luddites” who want to “strangle developments that will boost living standards”.
The planning row exploded yesterday at the first Prime Minister’s Questions since the summer recess, with Labour leader Ed Miliband challenging Mr Cameron on why another shake-up was needed.
“How is he so incompetent that he brings in a flagship planning Bill, calls it a revolution, and then six months later says that it is not fit for purpose?” the Doncaster North MP asked.
Mr Cameron defended his record, insisting his Government should be applauded for having “radically simplified the planning system”.
But unease continues to mount on Conservative backbenches.
Shipley MP Philip Davies said this week he was “opposed to anything that makes it easier to build on green belt.”